The Princess and the Pea was first published in 1835, one of a handful of satirical, colloquial fairy tales in an unbound collection by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. The colloquial language didn’t go down well with critics at the time, who also didn’t appreciate that Andersen’s silly little “wonder tales” failed to convey a moral suitable for children.
It took another 11 years for English speakers to read this story in translation, but it wasn’t the same story at all. Translator Charles Boner didn’t pick up on Andersen’s satire. Or perhaps he did pick up on it, but didn’t find it funny. In any case, Boner (great name, huh?) did not simply translate Andersen’s tale, he changed the ending and left English readers with something quite different.
“Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” is a mother-and-daughter road trip short story by American writer Lorrie Moore. This story was published in The New Yorker in November 1993. Also find it in Birds of America (1999) and The Collected Stories.
The title of this story comes from something the mother of this story is known to say often. This is the sort of thing that can sound affirming, but also passive-aggressive. (“By some people, do you mean me??”)
“Theda’s, of course, sweet as ever,” said her mother, “which is more than I can say about some people.”
Perhaps the daughter, Abby, has heard this her whole life, and this is partly why she is on a self-improvement journey.
The word ‘journey’ to describe a psychological path is much reviled, and I wonder if that’s partly because it’s a word mainly utilised by women. In any case, Abby goes on an actual journey (to Irish) hoping for a psychological journey, or, in the case of a fictional character, a character arc. The raison d’être of all road trip stories. Does she get one, though?
Well, yeah, kinda. But not the kind she was after. This story is about self-help spiritual journeys, subverted. When we embark upon self-improvement, sometimes we’re in for a shock. It’s about the futility of (too-)easily getting there and then going, now what? Is this all it’s cracked up to be? The Blarney Stone pilgrimage is an excellent example of the futility of tourist life, because we can pretend to ourselves that we’re visiting it for a reason. Of course the Blarney Stone does nothing for us. (I’m tempted to say pilgrimages are historically more meaningful because of the religious aspect, but then I learned that even in the middle ages, rich people would pay poor people to do their pilgrimages for them, suggesting they were never all that meaningful for the masses.)
Sometimes in satirical stories, characters themselves almost feel they’re a character in thier own story. This is a version of metafiction. Abby sees ‘storybook symbolism’ in her own experience of being a tourist:
Abby felt sick from the flight, and sitting on what should be the driver’s side but without a steering wheel suddenly seemed emblematic of something.
Later, Abby takes note of the ‘deadly maternal metaphor’ in the Celtic curlicues.
Zog (2010) is a picture book by best-selling British team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Zog is regularly held up as a great feminist story for young readers. Zog interests me as an excellent example of a children’s story which looks feminist at first glance. As I often say: Inversion does not equal subversion. Dig a little deeper, and Zog is pretty far from a feminist text, unless by ‘feminist’ we mean ‘a successful subversion of essentialist masculinity’. It’s something, all right. But let’s raise the bar. A story which challenges prescribed rules about masculinity while simultaneously reinforcing essentialist ideas about femininity cannot count as a successful feminist text.
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).
Storytellers can manage audience emotions by writing characters who do — and feel — the unexpected. In doing so, writers can subvert common emotional tropes to great effect.
Why is this technique necessary and so effective? A major element of good storytelling is surprise.
The writer’s characters must stand before us with a wonderful clarity, such continuous clarity that nothing they do strikes us as improbable behavior for just that character, even when the character’s action is, as sometimes happens, something that came as a surprise to the writer himself. We must understand, and the writer before us must understand, more than we know about the character; otherwise neither the writer nor the reader after him could feel confident of the character’s behavior when the character acts freely.
John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
And why is it so important that writers avoid the cliched and expected when writing emotional responses?
Reading about the response of people in stories, plays, poems, helps us to respond more courageously and openly at our own moments of turning.
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
Today’s first storytelling example comes from music.
Drugs do save lots of lives — generally they’re on prescription, though. There remains a stigma regarding certain classes of drugs: antidepressants and stimulant medications cop it pretty bad.
No surprise, then, that The Verve’s The Drugs Don’t Work is pop whereas you may never heard of Drugs Saved My Life, unless you’re reading this from Eastern Europe where Gurevich is popular — an interesting cultural difference about audience reactions to subversion, perhaps.
When drugs ruin someone’s life, the emotions around that narrative are intense; when drugs save someone’s life, bringing the character back to equilibrium, this prioritises the muted story over the sensational one. But expressing a muted response is one good way to subvert a dominant narrative: That drugs are bad.
Similarly, Michelle Gurevich’s I Saw The Spark feels like the literary counterpoint to Dolly Parton’s pop song Jolene.
In Jolene, the singer/narrator contacts the rival woman and pleads.
The lyrics of Jolene appeal to baser instincts — calling is what we might do if our frontal lobes weren’t doing their job.
MY MAN: (comes home) ME: (nervous) how was the store MY MAN: fine ME: oh thank g — MY MAN: ran into jolene ME: oh no MY MAN: she mentioned you left kind of an intense voicemail
Jolene as a song is therefore cathartic, and although I really do think the singer/narrator should ditch the man, those feelings of jealousy and inadequacy are real, relatable and… intense.
Gurevich’s song I Saw The Spark evokes a different emotion in a similar situation and therefore makes an excellent counterpoint to Jolene. The singer/narrator demonstrates unexpected emotional maturity when her partner is attracted by another woman. She acknowledges that sometimes in love you win, other times it’s your turn to lose. This is a fatalistic but realistic worldview. Finally:
And there’s nothing I can do But to love you both the more No there’s nothing I can do But to love you both the more Second best thing to a cure
These two songs feel like the difference between what a friend might tell you to do (“Call that bitch and tell her to back the hell off” — a la Jolene) and what a therapist might advise — “You can’t make someone stay with you — it takes two to be in a relationship — keep your perspective and remember this isn’t about you personally”.)
There’s room for both kinds of stories in this world. The question is, as a writer, which are you going for in any given narrative? Cathartic or nuanced? Expected or unexpected?
UNEXPECTED EMOTIONS IN SHORT STORIES
Now to the world of short stories.
Literary short stories are perhaps designated ‘literary’ precisely because of the nuanced, unexpected, unexplored Anagnorisiss and emotions from the main characters.
Alice Munro is a particularly nuanced writer, especially evident in the stories she wrote as an older person. Take the short story “Fiction” as a mentor text exploring the nuanced, unexpected emotions around infidelity.
One of the most confronting sentences I’ve encountered in a short story is written by Cynthia Ozick for a Holocaust narrative called “The Shawl” which includes the death of a baby from hunger. The mother feels two things at once: joy and grief.
Every day Magda [the baby] was silent, and so she did not die. Rosa [the mother] saw that today Magda was going to die, and at the same time a fearful joy ran in Rosa’s two palms, her fingers were on fire, she was astonished, febrile: Magda, in the sunlight, swaying on her pencil legs, was howling.
The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick
AIM FOR UNEXPECTED EMOTIONS IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS
As children’s storytellers, be mindful of reaching for the easy, expected emotion. The ‘unexpected’ emotion in a children’s book — same as in stories for adults — is often the more muted one.
Keeper is a breathtaking, magical novel from National Book Award finalist and Newbery Honoree Kathi Appelt.
To ten-year-old Keeper the moon is her chance to fix all that has gone wrong … and so much has gone wrong.
But she knows who can make things right again: Maggie Marie, her mermaid mother, who swam away when Keeper was just three. A blue moon calls the mermaids to gather at the sandbar, and that’s exactly where Keeper is headed – in a small boat. In the middle of the night, with only her dog, BD (Best Dog), and seagull named Captain. When the riptide pulls at the boat, tugging her away from the shore and deep into the rough waters of the Gulf of mexico, panic sets in and the fairy tales that lured her out there go tumbling into the waves. Maybe the blue moon won’t sparkle with mermaids and maybe – Oh, no … “Maybe” is just too difficult to bear.
Below, Betsy Bird makes special note of a children’s book which makes an excellent job of portraying the complex emotion of guilt. It it’s a lot easier to write about tantrums (or ‘snits’), and let’s face it, more fun. I have covered numerous examples of picture books featuring snits/tantrums on this blog, but middle grade novel Keeper by Kathi Appelt knows that middle grade readers are ready for something a little more complex:
There is a note at the back of this book in the Acknowledgment section that strikes me as just as important as any word in the text itself. Writes Ms. Appelt of one Diane Linn, “She lovingly cast her knowledge of tides and currents and stingrays my way, and she asked me to consider heartbreak over anger.” Heartbreak over anger. The very root of why Keeper goes traipsing out into the sea in a boat with only a dog by her side. Any book, heck most books, would have sent Keeper into that boat in the midst of a snit. Kids understand snits. They’re experts in `em. But while a snit may help your plot along, it isn’t as emotionally rewarding as good old-fashioned guilt. Keeper goes into that boat not because she’s mad or even because she feels much affection for her absent mother, but because she’s wholly convinced that she’s ruined the lives of everyone she loves and this is the only way to rectify the situation. That packs the necessary emotional wallop the book requires, while also making Keeper a sympathetic character. Well played, Diane Linn.
This episode is one of the later ones from season one, and by now the audience is well conditioned: We know that an opponent will appear and that it’s up to Courage to save the day. Even if we’ve never seen any Courage episodes before in our lives, the intro sequence tells us exactly that: “…and it’s up to Courage to save the day!” The problem to be overcome by the writers is now how to keep the stories feeling fresh?
This is the first episode in which the opponent is not a genuine opponent. Both the audience and Courage are fooled into thinking the pig is evil and plans to eat them after luring them out the back.
The pig chef is called Jean Bon — “I’m not French but my name sounds French don’t you think?” (Is this a dig at American singer Jon Bon Jovi?)
The diner itself is first seen from a ‘security camera’ angle. This in itself suggests things aren’t quite right.
Seeing the other customer disappear through a door (the lavatory?), and that the pig is suspiciously minding his briefcase and hat, Courage bravely decides to go through the same door and investigate. Of course he alerts Eustace first, but Eustace is busy enjoying his Very Cheap Burger.
The big struggle sequence involves Courage falling down the stairs into the basement, ominous shadows on the walls, and a chase scene in which Jon Bon chases after Courage in a way that seems he wants to eat him.
The best line is saved for the wife, who declares that Courage is so sweet she could just eat him up. She then chases him. Being quite large and unwieldy, Courage manages to get away and runs (wee wee wee) all the way home.
The psychological phenomenon wherein you want to squeeze or eat really cute things is called ‘cute aggression’. No one is sure why this is, but it might be simply that high levels of positive emotion may need a physical outworking, similar to crying when something really good happens to us.
This part of the story actually comes before the revelation in this tale. (We are left wondering until the final scene what has happened to Eustace. Eustace often cops punishment for being such a horrible person but on this occasion he’s having a good old time.)
Courage makes it home, leaving Eustace at the diner. Sitting with Muriel in front of the TV, Muriel assures us all that Eustace will come home eventually. We know that Muriel won’t ever get the scone she asked for. But I have to admit, at the beginning of the story I was half expecting a circular plot in which Eustace stops off to get the scone and encounters a sequel of whatever he got at the burger joint.
I was very wary picking up a book called Bossyboots to read to my daughter. ‘Bossy’ is a heavily gendered word. There’s no way a book called ‘Bossyboots’ would ever star a boy. So the first thing I checked was the year of publication. 1985, I thought. Well, this could be a good thing. Overtly feminist messages were pretty popular in 1985. I’m happy to say that this book subverts reader expectations.
This isn’t a story in which a bossy girl is put in her place; it’s a story which shows that a little girl’s bossiness can save the day.
This isn’t the easiest book to get hold of these days but it’s nevertheless an award winning publication. Bossyboots won a Children’s Choices Magazine Award in the USA and was included in America’s Children’s Choices List. I think the Wild West setting must be a familiar and popular one to an American audience, even though this is obviously set in Australia (with specific place names mentioned up front).
The small town of about 6000 people exists due to the cotton growing industry.
The story follows classic structure. A further word on the setting: The ‘Wild West’ is a good one for a classic big struggle. In this case there’s even a ‘black hat’ with a gun. Note that, because this is a story for children, the gun ends up being not even loaded — one way to tone down the scariness of guns, I guess. Also, if you want to write a picturebook with guns, it really does need to be set in earlier times. I suspect publishers would balk at a gun-weilding criminal in a modern setting. The Wild West stories are far enough into the past as to feel mythically alien to children.
Australian history is full of dodgy characters with poetic names, from Mad Dog Morgan to Bold Jack Donohoe. This outlaw is appropriately named Flash Fred. He’s not all that scary looking really. He’s a hapless guy who can’t overpower a little girl. He wears a straw hat, has a large belly and skinny legs — built to topple over, as he does.
Because this is a tale designed to subvert reader expectations, it’s the reader, not the main character, who has the revelation.
We realise that although this is an unappealing little girl who bosses everyone around, bossiness has its virtues; a bossy girl also has the ability to save the day. Bossiness can also mean ‘scared of nothing and no one’.
The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pigs is not only an inversion on the classic tale, but also a subversion of the message. Basically, this is a fable for a rape culture world.
Back in 1993, this book was a best seller and did well in a number of big prizes.
Most of the picture books I’ve looked at closely have been written in English, but this one started off in Greek, written by a famous Greek children’s author who is also a sociologist:
Dr Trivizas has published many books on literature, and he is one of Greece’s leading writers for children. He has produced more than a hundred books, all of them currently in print, and he has received more than twenty national and international literary prizes and awards.
The illustrations might remind you a little of the soft English countryside depicted by illustrators such as Beatrix Potter. Helen Oxenbury lives in North London and, like Trivizas, has a long list of books to her name. In 2008 she paired with our own Australian Mem Fox to create Ten Little Fingers And Ten Little Toes. Two years later she co-created There’s Going To Be A Baby with her husband, John Burningham.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THE THREE LITTLE WOLVES AND THE BIG, BAD PIGS
At first glance The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pigs looks easy to take a classic tale and invert the goodies and the baddies. However, nothing interesting comes of this. The author/illustrator have to be just as inventive as anyone creating a tale from scratch. What Trivizas did here was:
He not only swapped the roles of the animals, he inverted the order of the classic story. In the original, it takes the first two silly little pigs quite a while to realise they should be living in a house of bricks rather than of straw or sticks.
But Trivizas surprises us early on by having the smart little wolves build their house out of bricks. Where could the story possibly go from here?
As we find out, the ‘big bad pig wasn’t big and bad for nothing’, and as the little wolves build each successive abode more ridiculously strong than the one before (keeping to the rule of three), the big pig makes use of modern technologies (a pneumatic drill) and dynamite to ‘blow’ the house down. The detail of the pneumatic drill is great — there’s nothing going down a level of specificity to get a laugh. (We see comparatively little manual labour in children’s stories.)
What’s the moral of the story in The Three Little Pigs? There are probably several, but the one I took from the story as a child was that one should always protect oneself from bad characters. The subtext is that bad characters are essentially bad — it is in their nature. Though what I’m about to say is most definitely an adult’s reading of this text, I’m very much reminded of the message that girls, in particular, get as soon as we start to ‘go out into the world’ ourselves: You must protect yourself from bad men. And if you don’t, well that’s your own fault really, isn’t it. Earlier versions of fairytales, including The Three Little Pigs, were influenced by The Harlot’s Progress plot. (Though the pigs are gendered male, children are lumped in with women when it comes to messages to protect yourself from baddies.)
This particular message has been getting a bit of media discussion recently due to the work on domestic violence by Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, and an increasing awareness of what’s now known as Rape Culture, and the victim blaming that happens with domestic assault. (“Why didn’t she just leave?”)
What I love about the message in this book is that we’re telling children the truth about bad characters. No matter what we do to protect ourselves, if someone with bad intentions really wants to harm us, there is nothing we can do to stop them. A rapist intent on raping, for instance, will rape no matter what. If you manage to stay away from that person, he will simply move on to someone else, so broad announcements to baton down the hatches (don’t get drunk, don’t wear skirts etc.) do nothing. And that’s what happens in this children’s book. Instead, the little wolves have to wait for the big, bad pig to come good. If only real life were this simple, however. The big, bad pig comes good due to The Redemptive Power Of Beauty. In picture books, or especially in fairytales, beauty equals goodness.
The other part of the inversion I like is that you can’t tell a baddie from looking at them. Though the big pig is depicted as menacing, we are nonetheless conditioned to read pigs as victims and wolves as perpetrators in storybooks.
HUMOUR IN THE ILLUSTRATIONS
Oxenbury must be well aware of the typical child’s reaction upon hearing that a mother is throwing her children out of home. What sort of mother would do that, I wondered as a child. (We set a very high bar for mothers in children’s literature, even when those mothers are animals.) In her illustration — if you look very closely — the adult reader, at least, will notice a few details which depict the mother wolf as a bit of a lush. She has rollers in her hair (and tail), she’s painting her nails nonchalantly even as she’s telling her children to get out, and there is a very small bottle of something hidden in the folds of her bed covers, where she is presumably having ‘hair of the dog’.
On the topic of female characters in this story, there’s no reason why the adult reader couldn’t read the three little wolves as female. This is unlikely to happen because there are no feminine markers either, except one of the little wolves is very taken with his/her precious teapot, and my own stereotyping has me casting this wolf as female.
I like that the kangaroo with the wheelbarrow full of bricks is female. She has to be, of course, if the artist is to include the most wonderful thing about kangaroos — the joeys in their pouch. I like to think that the kangaroo construction worker would have been coded female even without the cute little joey in her pouch. Let’s have more of that in picture books!
The Day The Crayons Quit is a best seller made by two picture book superstars, so I’d like to use it as an example of something which bothers me a lot in children’s literature and film: Gender inversion that ironically supports the status quo.
On the surface, The Day The Crayons Quit contains a message for young artists: Use all the colours in your crayon box. Use them in original ways. (‘Think Outside The Crayon Box’.) And the gender message for boy readers: If you’re a boy, don’t be afraid to use the pink crayon. There is also another message, more implicit than that: Pink is for girls, and girls are one big blob of similar people who ‘colour within the lines’.
This is of course a response to the pinkification of toys and games that’s been happening over the past 10-20 years.
Monica Dux conducted an experiment: ‘Walking my baby up and down a busy shopping strip. She was dressed in a lime-green hoodie and pink pants but before I set out I covered her pants with a grey blanket. The immediate assumption from all those who cooed at my infant was that she was a boy.’ The rest of the story is here.
Embracing Girly: On Letting Girls Be Who They Are from Don’t Conform Transform: ‘There’s nothing wrong with a child choosing any or all of those things or loving them, but there is something wrong with media and marketers providing only one vision of what a girl can like and who she can be.‘
A short clip from the comedian Jared Logan about the difference between the television commercials for boys’ vs girls’ toys.
Feminizing The Masculine, a Pinterest collection which ends up being a visual guide to how pink is used to market to adult women as well as to girls.
Even children’s books that seem radical in other ways reinforce a male-dominated universe. The current bestsellers “The Day the Crayons Quit” and “The Day the Crayons Came Home” have been praised as parables of inclusion and celebrations of diversity. One bookseller I spoke with even described the rebelling crayons as a metaphor for the Occupy movement. Yet not a single crayon is identified with a female pronoun.Just about everything and everyone in the books — from five of the crayons to a paper clip to a sock to Pablo Picasso to the crayons’ owner, Duncan, to his father to his little brother — is male, or not assigned a gender. The exceptions are a female teacher and Duncan’s little sister, who uses the otherwise under-employed pink crayon.To color in a picture of a princess. And is praised for staying in the lines.
Anita Sarkeesian has already explained in detail our culture’s tendency to create a cast of male characters, each with differing personalities, then create a new ‘female’ version, in which her defining characteristic is ‘femaleness’. The audience knows that this is the girl because the creators have slapped a bow on her head, put her in heels and a dress, given her eyelashes or marked her out with pink.
This doesn’t just happen in video games — it happens on TV shows designed for children, in computer software used in schools, in advertising, in toys, and of course in mass market picture books.
Since readers of The Day The Crayons Quit have been acculturated within a system which pinkifies everything associated with girls, it should have been clear to this book’s creators — who presumably understand this tendency in children precisely so they can subvert it — that without gender pronouns, or clothes, or human names, the crayons are all default males.
It should also have been clear to any creators properly schooled up in gender politics that getting the male hero to pass on a message praising his little sister for ‘staying within the lines’ is just the sort of sexist bullshit that turns primary school aged girls into what I’ve heard teachers refer to as ‘colourer-inners’ by the time they hit high school. No, that’s not a grammatically sensible phrase, but an English teacher I once knew used it to refer to her female students who, instead of doing the research and the thinking required before writing any essay, would spend 90 per cent of their allocated time creating an ornamental page border, choosing which shade of paper to print on, then hum and ha over 7 different system fonts without doing any actual work. Having later taught at a girls’ high school myself, I became so exasperated with this tendency that I banned any modification to the Word template at the start of each lesson, otherwise 20 minutes would be wasted on choosing fonts and borders rather than thinking essay work. Who could blame these girls though, after having been told their entire lives that looking pretty and creating prettiness was the most important thing they should do?
Drew Daywalt’s picture book hardly blows that bullshit apart.
I’m most disturbed by the bit that says:
Okay, listen here, kid! You have not used me ONCE in the past year. It’s because you think I am a GIRLS’ colour, isn’t it?
I’m reminded here of all those picture books for toddlers which are designed to teach children not to be afraid of monsters. The book will then offer up a detailed picture of just exactly what a monster looks like (green and scaly or warm and fluffy) and where it lives (under the bed, behind the curtains). My own daughter was never scared of monsters until she encountered them in other people’s stories, and those first stories happened to be picture books, naturally.
When boys and girls are told that this generic ‘kid’, Duncan, is not using the pink because he is a boy, there is nothing whatsoever within the text or the pictures to say:
AND WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING A GIRL, ANYWAY?
The message is not: Femme phobia is stupid because even though pink is ‘for girls’ girls are just a-okay. No, the message is: You can use the pink crayon even though it’s an icky girl colour. (So long as you use it to make a dinosaur, not a princess.)
How Might This Book Be Better?
The crayons probably do need to be overtly gendered, with 50/50 male/female. The pink crayon could have even been a boy, to really hammer home the ‘pink is for everyone’ message. I’m a bit icky still about all this because in a perfect world these crayons could remain completely ungendered. Also, the pink crayon is not actually marked as female in any other way apart from being pink. Still, if the creators didn’t know that was going to happen, they are surprisingly naive.
Don’t praise girls for colouring within the lines while offering up an example of creative freeform drawing in boys.
Show that Duncan has coloured in the princess rather than creating a dinosaur with the pink. Maybe have the little sister be the one drawing the pink dinosaur.
Either get rid of the bit that preaches about pink being related to girls (it should be obvious from the illustrations anyway, for children who already ‘get the cultural message’), or else append with something that challenges the inherent femme phobia.
The first part of the message works i.e. ‘Be creative and original with colour’. But with something as complex as gendered messages, unfortunately inversion does not equal subversion.
This picture book fails in its gender message however. In fact, it makes the whole thing worse.
In regards to the “naked crayon” (peach) mentioned by other readers, I believe this refers to Duncan removing the crayon’s wrapper and not the author’s inadvertent implication that peach is the only color equivalent to skin tone. Even so, as others have noted, the illustrations would be improved by diversifying the figures in the book (they’re all colored with peach crayon although brown and beige crayons are referenced), especially since one of the book’s lessons is to experience color in various ways.
They say we’re dangerous. But we’re not that different.
Jude is running out of time. Once a year, lucky young men in the House of Boys are auctioned to the female elite. But if Jude fails to be selected before he turns seventeen, a future deep underground in the mines awaits.
Yet ever since the death of his best friend at the hands of the all-powerful Chancellor, Jude has been desperate to escape the path set out for him. Finding himself entangled in a plot to assassinate the Chancellor, he finally has a chance to avenge his friend and win his freedom. But at what price?
A speculative YA thriller, tackling themes of traditional gender roles and power dynamics, for fans of Malorie Blackman, Louise O’Neill and THE POWER.
I’m no great fan of many traditional rom-coms, but I do love this off-beat romantic comedy drama blend precisely because it takes the regular, conservative storyline of: mother almost loses her baby and then reunites (to live happily ever after), and the usual movie tropes (geek = Bleeker, but he’s also an athlete, stepmother is not wicked) and inverts them at every opportunity. The dialogue of Juno is witty, in keeping with Diablo Cody’s distinctive voice, seen also in The United States of Tara and in her books.
Notice the orange and white banding which make up the main colour scheme of the Juno movie poster. See this article which is an interesting insight into colour and movie posters. Rom-coms are generally white whereas the colour orange tells an audience we won’t know quite what to expect.
Since this is a comedy there is a happy ending, and a uniting rather than a separation, but the happy ending is not necessarily what we expect. This is a satisfying story.
At the beginning of the story Juno already knows she’s pregnant. In fact, she’s already been to the convenience store and peed on several sticks, leading to comedy about ‘etch a sketches’ and how pee sticks can’t be erased. We see her walking about with a huge container of juice. We soon find out why she’s been drinking so much juice — she needs to make pee for the pregnancy tests.
Juno’s moral shortcoming is that she is sardonic — this is part of her sense of humour, but it needs to be tamed a bit, because she is going through life connecting with no one in particular. She apparently had sex with Beeker because she was ‘bored’. If she had any feelings for him she refuses to admit it. Bleeker is just the sort of boyfriend she needs to grow emotionally, because for all his vagueness, Bleeker comes from a loving family and is himself quite emotionally mature.
Juno’s psychological shortcoming is that she doesn’t know who she is yet. In fact, when her father tells her he thought she was the sort of girl who knows when to say when, she replies, ‘I don’t know what sort of girl I am.’
She’s drifting through life trying things on. She’s not quite as mature as she seems. In some ways she has an acidic wit and precocious insight. On the other hand, she can’t see what her step-mother sees about Mark Loring — that he is unreliable and flirty and that going around to his house to ‘rock out’ with him is going to cause problems and is inappropriate. In short, Juno is immature, and this is her coming-of-age story.
In order to have a better life, Juno needs to grow up (preferably without the noose of a baby to care for), find a boyfriend who fully accepts her for who she is (as her father explains in his fatherly advice) and take time to explore her passions (singing and song-writing). This being a comedy, there is a happy ending, and she indeed has achieved these things as the credits roll.
Juno’s ghost is that her mother abandoned her, sending her a cactus every year as the only point of contact, and she seems to be on medication, probably for AD/HD. (“I can sell you some of my Adderall.”)
Characters around Juno have ghosts: Her father doesn’t have a good track record with relationships (though he’s in an excellent relationship now, and has been for the last 10 years.) The most significant ghost plot wise is that of the Lorings — an adoption arrangement has fallen through for Vanessa in the past, which explains her nervousness, and Mark has a history of being flaky, and perhaps of getting with other young women (implied), which would explain why Vanessa is uncomfortable with Juno and Mark rocking out together in private. Sure enough, details of the ‘ghost’ are withheld from the audience. It’s not until the second half of the movie that we learn the Lorings have been let down before, and that we get a glimpse of Mark coming on to Juno.
Juno herself is no stranger to all things sexual — her best friend has been having sex and her peers have been having abortions. This film takes the usual high school girl story and inverts everything possible. Instead of this story being about the moral outrage of teenage sex (or ’sexual intercourse’ — a phrase that is repeatedly mocked by Juno and Leah), this is puts all the outrage into the background and shifts the story beyond the drama of procuring an abortion, confessing to parents, being scorned by the community.
The scorn is depicted by one interaction between Juno and the office lady, who is giving her a late pass or something. The parental outrage we expect is not there — Juno’s stepmother (another inversion — the step mother is as loving as a mother) immediately jumps into practical caregiver mode (we later see her up late sewing new waistbands on jeans). The story leads us to believe Juno is going to keep her baby when she gets back together with Bleaker and when Vanessa breaks up with Mark, but that would be too trite: Vanessa gets the baby anyhow.
The setting is suburban Minnesota: two different kinds of suburbs — Juno lives in a more chaotic, non-traditional household whereas the Lorings live in a new development, St. Cloud.
St. Cloud is more of a “small town grown into a large town”, with a friendly Midwestern feel but an expanding role as a commercial and educational center and commuter suburb to the northwestern reaches of Minneapolis-St Paul.
In a series of cuts we see that all of the houses around the Lorings are new, well-maintained and manicured, but we also see that everyone who lives here is basically the same. We expect (and soon have it confirmed) that Vanessa is the sort of woman who takes her life advice from What To Expect When You’re Expecting (the white middle class mother’s bible), and her main problem seems to be what shade of cheesecake to paint the baby’s room. She is pretty much the opposite of who we expect Juno will turn out to be. Juno, at this point, looks more likely to live in a converted office block decorated with industrial waste. Juno lives an hour’s drive away from St Cloud, which is just far enough to be in a separate world, but which allows her to see the Lorings. Minneapolis is a typical American mid-western town with generally conservative attitudes, though abortion is indeed possible in this part of America. It would be a different sort of story again if this were set in, say, Texas, where an abortion wouldn’t necessarily have been an option for Juno.
Juno’s world revolves around school, home and the odd outing to necessary places such as the pharmacy.
Stories set in American schools almost always have a number of locker/hall scenes. I guess that’s because where the school’s true hierarchy is seen best, with the corridor functioning like a forest. Juno is shown several times battling against the flow of students walking from the opposite direction, symbolising her alternative personality.
We also see Juno and Bleeker interacting as science lab partners, and this couple is contrasted against the annoyingly immature couple they share a table with. By comparison, Juno and Bleeker look like a great couple, and this is probably the point where we start to root for them working out, and is why we’re disappointed — as Juno is — when we learn that Bleeker is going to the prom with someone else.
The story follows the seasons, which is a ‘feminine’ way of storytelling — stories for girls, for example, tend to be cyclical in nature.
The seasons can be seen in a graphic of the film’s colours.
Since this story is about a pregnancy, breaking scenes down by seasons in which they occur is a convenient way of signalling to the audience how close we are to the climax: Will Juno give the baby to the Lorings or not? And when is the baby due?
Some details of the setting: We see the track and field boys running in their gold and maroon uniform no matter what the season. This adds some humour, especially when we see a close up on their shorts, with Juno’s comments about their penises jumping around, accompanied by a slo-mo close up — an inversion on the usual objectification of female characters in coming-of-age movies. The athletes’ training is almost a metaphor: things keep happening. Seasons don’t stop for anyone. The baby is definitely happening, and it’s as sure as the track and field athletes keep on truckin no matter the weather.
Juno and her friend Leah are often seen together in unusual places, signalling their ‘weird’ status and general confidence. They eat lunch in the ‘prize nook’, where you’d expect them to be told off by a teacher in a different kind of high school movie.
Juno’s bedroom is introduced (like most teenagers’ bedrooms are) with a slow pan and zoom — we see she has decorated her room with some very unusual objects, and the point of comedy is that she’s calling up for an abortion on a hamburger phone, leading to the juxtaposition between pregnancy and eating, which seems to be inherently funny.
The food/pregnancy is an extended gag throughout: “I don’t know, it’s not seasoned yet”, the huge big gulp type drinks she’s carrying around to emphasise how big her belly is compared to her usual stature, the ‘food baby’ response she gets when she tells Leah she’s up the duff…. She even has to shake the hamburger phone mid-call in order to get it to work — shaking is another gag. (She has also been seen shaking the pee stick — another riff on the etch-a-sketch joke made by the Rainn Wilson character who works in the pharmacy.)
Juno is surrounded by props which add humour and convey her eccentricity.
This would have been a very simple story if Juno had simply called up for an abortion and got one. But Juno has a bit of a moral crisis when she is told by Su-Chin that her baby already has fingernails. This leads to subsequent problems: if she’s not going to have an abortion, what is she going to do? This is an excellent crisis because Juno thinks she has just overcome the crisis incited at the very beginning of the film. In quirky Cody style, this moral crisis is camouflaged a bit by witty dialogue:
Juno’s new desire is to find the perfect loving family for her baby. Not just a ‘loving’ family, though. She wants to find a ‘cool’ family, by her teenage definition of cool.
She tells Leah that she basically wants parents just like her idealised version of her older self, but in the end, she will realise that a woman quite different from her original idea of cool will do just as nicely, if not better. This is a perfect example of a desire line, because the desire doesn’t change completely (that would lead to a new story), but veers off course a little after a revelation.
Juno’s father, step-mother and friend Leah are all her allies. Each of these characters at some point have a conversation with Juno in which we see Juno’s shortcomings challenged. Leah play the main confidante, in which we learn what Juno is thinking.
Bleeker is both ally and opponent, being the love-interest in a romantic comedy. He doesn’t actively stand in her way, but he does start seeing another girl and Juno gets jealous. Rather than Bleeker being an opponent there is the issue of Bleeker’s mother, who doesn’t want to see them together because she finds Juno too alternative for her own conservative tastes. Bleeker’s mother’s desire: For her son to find a nice, conservative girl, like the one with the ‘permanent stink eye’ (who he plans to go to the dance with.)
The community itself is an opponent. Though we don’t see the kick-back Juno gets for being pregnant, we do have a few insights: “They call me the cautionary whale.” We see the way the school office lady looks her up and down with disgust, and then there’s the argument with the woman doing the ultrasound, who stands in for every middle class person looking down on teenage mothers. (This scene also allows us to see the extent to which the step-mother is an ally.)
The audience, too, is possibly Juno’s opponent, and in this film we’re being asked to consider what a good family really looks like. The traditional idea of the nuclear family with two parents in the suburbs is challenged at various points. When Juno gives her friends the middle finger, she is really giving us the middle finger in a good-humoured fashion.
Mark genuinely enjoys Juno’s company but he isn’t admitting to himself or to her that he doesn’t really want her baby, and he isn’t emotionally mature enough to even tell her, let alone his own wife, about his misgivings. Juno’s about to give birth, which functions in the plot like a ticking clock (often used in thrillers) to add a bit of tension. The plot turns at the point when Mark conveys his misgivings after their slow 80s dance: Juno then has a crisis about whether she really does want to give her baby to the Lorings. They’re not as perfect as she imagined.
Revelation and Decision
Juno lies on the hood of her car, obviously thinking about something. She drives back to St Cloud and leaves a note on Vanessa’s doorstep. She doesn’t find out what the note says until the end of the movie, when Vanessa has framed it and put it on the baby’s wall, but Juno has said that she’ll still give Vanessa the baby even if she’s a single mother. Juno has seen Vanessa at the mall interacting with a friend’s child and knows Vanessa will make a good mother no matter what.
Juno realises, after feeling her jealousy, that she really does want to be Bleeker’s girl friend so her plan is to get him back. She buys 100 boxes of his favourite orange tic-tacs and leaves them in his letterbox. Then she apologises to him on the track and tells him she really does love him.
Opponent’s Plan and Main Attack
This film doesn’t seem to have this. There is no obvious line of attack against Juno. Unless we count Mark’s plan — he’s going to break up with Vanessa. Perhaps this is the worst thing that could happen for Juno, even worse than Bleeker not accepting her back, because in this story Vanessa and Juno are linked by being ‘mothers’ to the unborn baby.
Juno’s decision to give her baby to Vanessa despite Mark’s abandonment means she has won out against Mark’s immaturity. He’s going to be alone and single and middle-aged and living in a loft.
Attack By Ally
An attack-by-ally scene is the conversation between Juno and her step-mother about Juno going around to Mark’s unannounced. Juno reveals her callous side by dissing her stepmother’s hobby of making collages out of dog pictures when she ‘doesn’t even have a dog’.
Juno attacks her back for cutting out pictures of dogs even though she doesn’t have a dog (because of Juno’s allergy). This is probably the conversation which helps Juno to understand who Mark really is, though she doesn’t realise it immediately. Only after he expresses his misgivings about taking her baby, in which case her step-mother’s advice probably was at the back of her mind.
It seems for a while as if Juno giving her baby to a couple breaking up is not going to happen. She’s going to be stuck with this baby because she’s due to give birth very soon. Sure enough, there is only one apparent defeat. Up until now, Juno has been sure that she wants Mark and Vanessa to have her baby.
In the plotline where Juno wants to be with Bleeker (subconsciously at first) she is also defeated when she finds out Bleeker is going to the prom, and then to someone’s log house, with another girl. The argument they have tells the audience that Juno still likes Bleeker, and that Juno herself doesn’t yet realise it. We also realise how great Bleeker is when he tells her the absolute truth about the other girl (comically using the exact words Leah did).
Obsessive Drive, Changed Drive and Motive
Juno has the obsessive drive to find good parents for her baby. We know that Juno keeping the baby is not the best outcome. She’s very much a young, free spirit who isn’t at the point where she takes life seriously. Although Juno initially wanted a couple, she has decided that a single mother is fine, if that single mother happens to be Vanessa. Until recently Juno has connected far more with Mark (because they’re on the same maturity level) but she has garnered enough human insight now to know that the cool guy isn’t going to make as good of a parent as the anxious woman.
This is the part where the audience learns something Juno does not, but mostly in this story we’re right there alongside Juno for the ride. For example, we realise how good a mother Vanessa will make at the same time Juno does — when we see her in the mall playing with the toddler. But we do realise before Juno does that all is not well in rich-happy-married-couple land. We see Mark and Vanessa at a stalemate over the colour of the paint for the baby’s room. Mark thinks it’s ‘too early’ to be worrying about that, and we learn he hasn’t been reading the baby books Vanessa has been asking him to read.
Third Revelation and Decision
This is the bit where Juno realises Mark is a fake-ally opponent: He tells her he isn’t ready to be a father and he’s thinking of breaking up with Vanessa (though doesn’t have the balls to have actually done that yet).
Visit To Death
Shown by Juno lying on her car bonnet late that night, trying to decide what to do. This is a modern story, so the visit to death is psychological. She’s in turmoil: can she bear to give her baby to a single mother?
The audience, along with Juno, is witness to the big explosive argument between Mark and Vanessa. We see how much better Vanessa would be at parenting than Mark. We may have suspected Vanessa of being a fake good person — that in fact she’ll be a terrible mother — over anxious and obsessive. But now we see that whatever her faults are, she’s a hell of a lot better than Mark. Interestingly, Juno is a lot like her main opponent — Mark. They are both not ready for a baby.
We’ve already seen that Vanessa has a lot more maturity than Juno.
Juno perhaps realises that, like Mark, she is not ready for a baby, even if she is with the father as a young couple. She realises that Vanessa will still make a great mother, that a typical nuclear family isn’t the be all and end all — that relationships end all the time, but babies come along despite this sad fact. We see her making these revelations in the comical talk with her father, in which the father thinks she’s asking about him, but she’s really thinking about Mark and Vanessa.
The two courses of possible action: Give her baby to Vanessa or keep it.
The audience has been expecting Juno to keep her baby, or at least find a new couple at the last minute. The traditional ‘happy ending’ is seeing babies with their natural mothers, loved and adored and brought up beautifully. The revelation is that Juno has decided to give her baby to Vanessa despite her recently broken relationship. The film withholds this information by refusing to show us what’s on the note. The thematic revelation is that babies don’t need a typical happy rich couple in order to thrive. Alternative family set ups can be just as fulfilling, as evidenced by Juno’s own family set up, in which her relationship with her stepmother is as good as any typical relationship between mother and teenaged daughter.
This is pretty hokey in any other genre, but we see Juno together with Bleeker playing the guitar outside a picturesque suburban house. Perhaps Juno has left home — her step-mother has got a dog, which Juno is allergic to. There has been a reference earlier in the movie about how the step-mother can’t have a dog until Juno leaves home because of her allergy to dog saliva. Bleeker and Juno are singing a duet, suggesting they are a very happy couple. In fact, they’re becoming the very couple Juno looked for in Vanessa and Mark.