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.Continue reading “Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler”
Today’s storytelling examples come from music.
Canadian singer songwriter Michelle Gurevich is expert at creating songs which function as antidotes to pop messages. Her songs have titles like Drugs Saved My Life, standing in contrast to more conservative ideologies such as The Drugs Don’t Work from The Verve.
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
— Rob Dubbin (@robdubbin) July 28, 2019
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.
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.
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.
Photo in header is by Allef Vinicius.
In any horror comedy starring a dog, surely at some point the dog must find himself a hot dog, right?
The trope of the surprise in the burger plays on a primal fear we have when visiting cheap food joints — what is under the bread?
David Walliams has used it…
As have I, in our story app Hilda Bewildered.
While there have been many surprises and reversals, this is the first Courage episode which so completely subverts audience expectations.
Courage is forced to go with Eustace to buy Muriel a scone. She is too sick to cook.
Courage’s other shortcoming is that he is inclined to worry a lot and sometimes, as will be revealed here, it’s over nothing.
Eustace is a Horrible Husband (the full trope) so of course he looks after himself and is grumpy about his wife failing to cook him dinner even though she is sick.
As ever, he must keep Muriel happy and make sure Eustace remembers to buy her the scone from the bakery.
Whenever Courage puts his own collar on this is a visual metaphor for him doing something he doesn’t want to do. Another catch phrase is, “The things I do for love!” though he doesn’t say that here.
Plans to remind Eustace about the scone change when it becomes clear Eustace has no intention of stopping at Sweet Stuff. They drive right past.
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.
The audience learns what the pigs mean by ‘heads of beef’. They are culinary artists who enjoy crafting customers’ heads out of minced beef.
It is also revealed that the customer who disappeared earlier is a gallery owner who offers to showcase their work.
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.
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.
- Do Gendered Toys And Playtime Have Their Place Or Is It All For Profit? from The Mary Sue.
- Stereotyping Childhood from Don’t Conform Transform. Why does the pink and blue division of toys matter? See also: I’m Dreaming Of A Non Pink and Blue Christmas from the same blog.
- Beauty And The New Lego Line For Girls from The Society Pages (See also: Retro Lego Catalogue Praises Little Girls’ Imagination from The Mary Sue. And if you’re wondering what the new Lego for Girls looks like, you can see it at Ms Blog.) Here are a couple of retro Lego ads, and as far as I’m concerned, they should still look pretty much like that.
- Lego For Girls Already Exists. It’s Called Lego from Mommyish, and here’s more commentary on the superfluousness of the new Lego line, which is discussed amid a handy explanation of Stereotype Threat from Don’t Conform Transform. (Girly Lego Sucks, But It’s Selling Like Hotcakes – an update from Jezebel.) And if anyone here is still wondering what the problem is, Peggy Orenstein tells Mommyish Why Those Girly Legos Should Give Parents Pause.
- Gender Typed Toys: What The Research Says from naeyc
- On Vanity And Princess Culture from Blue Milk, talking about dolls and other faux-harmless toys for girls
- Pink Or Blue: Defining Gender Neutral Parenting – Baby Storm’s parents have not revealed Storm’s gender.
- Toy Ads And Learning Gender from Feminist Frequency (a video)
- But just because it’s not pink, doesn’t mean it might as well be.
- 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.
- Are Gender Neutral Spaces Actually Doing Anything?, from Inequality by (Interior) Design
- Dame Jacqueline Wilson dares her publishers to not put a pink cover on just one of her books, to prove they would still sell, from The Telegraph
- Loving pink for boys, hating it for girls, from Motherlode
The Difficulties Faced by Authors/Illustrators In Conveying This Message
Best selling title that it is, lauded for its gender subversion, there are some potential problems in The Day The Crayons Quit.
First I’ll quote Jennie Yabroff who wrote in The Washington Post:
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.Jennie Yabroff
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.
And the peach thing is a bit problematic, too, as noted by a Goodreads reviewer:
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.
A subversive narrative draws the reader in, then slowly, using a variety of tricks, the writer reveals this isn’t exactly what the reader expected.
But subversive tales are among the hardest to write. One big hurdle is: How to end a subversive story?
- Margery Hourihan (who wrote Deconstructing The Hero) offers some favourite examples of stories which successfully subvert the traditional heroic tale — the one which pits reason against emotion, civilization against wilderness, reason against nature, order against chaos, mind/soul against body, male against female, human against non-human and master against slave.
- Alice In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, in which the entire world is turned upon its head
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and the others in this series, by Douglas Adams, similar to Alice In Wonderland in this manner, poking fun at the established order of things
- Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, because it does not depict wolves and nature as the enemy, over which to dominate
- The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger, because the story criticises the values of post-war American patriarchal capitalism
- Peter Rabbit (because although Peter is highly-spirited, he does not set out to ‘win’ anything over anyone else)
- Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin, because relationships between women are completely independent of men and is about the emergence of new ways from the old
- E.T. is about kindness.
Hourihan then describes why the endings of these non-heroic tales are so hard to end:
There is no thunderclap from Zeus or hot supper from Mother to signify approval of the hero’s deeds, the significance of the conclusion is often somewhat equivocal, and what will happen in the future is by no means certain. These stories do not imply that there are any final solutions to life’s difficulties; they do not evoke the ‘happy ever after’ heaven outside the text. The reader is left to wonder what Julie’s life will be like with her Americanized father and to wonder about the chances of survival for the wolves in the American north. Holden Caulfield’s future remains deeply problematic. Brian Robeson has been strengthened and matured by his experiences in the Canadian wilderness, but the reader must decide whether this will help him cope with his parents’ impending divorce and his own future. It is impossible to predict the futures of Tenar, Therru and Ged, but the one thing that is clear to the reader is that all will be changed utterly…
These stories demand active participation by readers and viewers. They demand interpretation and re-examination of received opinions. They demand the acceptance of uncertainty. But they reward their readers with intellectual, emotional and imaginative stimulation, with humour, with subtleties of insight, with opportunities to explore the perspectives of people different from themselves.
For more on mythic structure — or the heroic tale, as it’s variously known — see this post.
Subversion of reader expectation to challenge long-held beliefs is one of the most difficult — and the most important — things storytellers can do.
It’s also easy to get wrong. For an example of subversion which fails, see my analysis of bestselling picture book The Day The Crayons Quit.
It’s not surprising that feminists are all over this aspect of literature. Storytellers have been trying to challenge gender roles for a long while now, and also getting it wrong. In Waking Sleeping Beauty, Roberta Seelinger Trites writes: “Novels that engage in simple role reversal are no more feminist than their counterparts.”
In this post I make a case against simple inversion, even if it hopes to subvert. I make a case against hipster irony. I make a case for a deep understanding of the cultural milieu before attempting a narrative which subverts it.
Case Study: Brave
Pixar’s Brave was widely hailed as a welcome addition to a corpus of films which most often depict girls as princess types waiting to be saved. (Of all the reviews I have read of Brave, the review from Feminist Disney most closely matches my own impressions of it.)
Here’s why Pixar’s Brave is not subversive: Brave does not push traditional gender limits. An academic from Emory University explains in this short video that Merida encourages girls to be independent, but within the fairytale structure of this arc, demonstrates that there are severe consequences to stepping outside gender roles. Merida unleashes a curse by daring to be different. A better representation of girlhood in animated film is that of Violet from The Incredibles, who uses her super-power of invisibility to create a force field around herself. But there are other issues with this story — again, Violet exists — as most fictional female heroes do — within the realms of her family. Writers didn’t give her the opportunity to leave the family and seek independence, though they often give that opportunity to masculo-coded characters. Another Pixar creation, Up, is quite a gender-bender in this sense, because the boy who befriends the old man is desperate for the love of family rather than separating from the family to seek his boyish independence on the way to manhood. His is a more typically femme-coded storyline, in which family is important to him.
Case Study: Babette Cole
I didn’t fully understand my own problem with Brave until I took a close look at two picture books which parody traditional gender stereotypes. The first is Prince Cinders by Babette Cole and the other, a book called The Dragon Of Brog by Jean Hood. This is from the final chapter in Deconstructing The Hero by Margery Hourihan:
Just as [Babette] Cole’s stories lampoon the stereotypes of large hairy masculinity and the swashbuckling hero who overcomes all difficulties, so Hood’s story ridicules the figure of the brave knight in armour whose profession is mayhem, and appreciation of the joke likewise depends upon familiarity with the originals.
These stories certainly raise the issue of gender, and provide effective discussion-starters for teachers. As Stephens says of Prince Cinders [by Babette Cole] ‘that abjection, humility and passivity now become deficiencies poses the question of why they should be virtues for the female’. But there are problems with these works that go beyond their parodic dependence upon the originals.
Their ridicule of the gender stereotypes is ultimately nihilistic for females. There are no admirable male figures against whom to measure the exploded stereotypes, and the attitudes of the princesses Smarty Pants and Lisa [and Merida] suggest that all males are contemptible nuisances. While this might amuse some girls because it is such a neat inversion of the dismissal of females in so many stories, it offers nothing except a sense of pay-back. Smarty Pants and Lisa [and Merida] themselves are little more than the old male stereotypes in drag: they are arrogant, self-assured know-alls with no empathy for others — hardly positive embodiments of the female. The trouble with dualism is that if you simply turn it on its head it is still a dualism. Inversion is not the same as subversion…
Further, these stories fail to engage with the material they deride. Despite the patriarchal values inscribed in traditional hero tales the fields of folk talk, legend and romance are rich with potent symbols that work at many levels.Deconstructing The Hero by Margery Hourihan
Hourihan does go on to say (of the picture books mentioned above):
Of course these stories do have an ideological content. They are celebrations of self-interest, of ruthless, unconsidered individualism. The behaviour of Smarty Pants and Lisa, who both want to do exactly as they like all the time, exemplifies the strident selfishness of the extremists who give feminism a bad name.
On this, I feel Brave does better than Princess Smartypants and The Dragon of Brog. By the end of Brave, Merida has changed the local law for everyone; no one will be forced to marry someone unless each is of the other’s choosing. Merida has been an activist for wider social change. However, let’s not mistake this for storytelling gender equality. That will not have been achieved until female characters are fighting for something other than female freedom.
Case Study: There’s A Girl In My Hammerlock (1991) by Jerry Spinelli
Main character Maisie joins the wrestling team in hopes of getting a boyfriend. She tries to transform herself into a boy, which of course does not work. (Dressing as someone else is a typical ‘mask’ plot.) She discovers that the boy she thought she liked is a jerk. But trying to gain power by acting male makes her little more than ‘a hero in drag’, which is irritating and retrograde.
‘Hero in drag’ is a term used by Lissa Paul in her essay “Enigma Variations”.
Case Study: Samson: the Mighty Flea! by Angela McAllister and Nathan Reed
This picture book opens with a male flea setting off to prove his physical prowess in a circus. The girl glea, clearly in love with him, packs his suitcase and waves him off but stays home, sad. This frustrates a feminist reader such as myself, who would like to see boys packing their own suitcases, and noticing other people’s feelings at least enough to acknowledge them.
In the big, wide world, the boy flea is unable to impress anyone, and the ‘girl’ shows up of nowhere. In a simple gender inversion, the girl flea impresses everyone instead. (This makes sense for fleas, in which there is no sexual dimorphism with regards to strength.) The boy flea falls in love with the girl flea’s display of strength. The story was a love story all along.
Soooo…. until I get to the very end, where the girl flea lifts the pea, I’ve sat through a hum-drum, frustrating, old-fashioned plot in which a girl supports a boy’s dreams as he attempts to prove himself in a masculine world (showing off using strength, in front of a large audience). The young reader is meant to have learned — I generously conclude — that girls are just as strong and just as worthy as boys, if not more so.
If authors are going to take problematic ideologies and subvert them, can they leave it until the very end? Does that still work? I really don’t know. I’m reminded of how critics said of Mad Men that Peggy and Joan were the ‘secret protagonists’. This may make sense for a story set in the 1960s, in which women had no choice but to find their own successes behind the success of a ‘cover’ man. I cannot so easily explain it away for an atemporal picture book set in a fantasy circus.
Subversion, Irony, Satire and Parody
These genres lend themselves to subversion.
That’s because subversion involves foiling the expectation of your audience. Subversion aims to challenge pre-existing views. This is hard to achieve because the writer must intuit what the audience will expect, as well as what they already believe to be true about the world. The writer must have a solid understanding of psychology and of cultural tropes. (Note that simple inversion does not equal subversion.)
Irony has a very wide meaning and various subcategories and very much deserved its own post.
Hipster Irony is a term sometimes used to describe ideas that would ordinarily be offensive, except there’s an understanding (true or not) that ‘everyone knows we’re not really sexist/racist/ableist, so therefore it’s not’.
There is a social function to this kind of humour — it says, “Other people are sexist/racist/ableist, but we, of course, are not. I trust you to get that.” The game Cards Against Humanity took off like wildfire because it brings modern hipster types together, asking them to say offensive things in each other’s company, knowing that no one in the group would really believe such things. In storytelling, sometimes a writer gets the willies and in an attempt to save themselves from criticism they lampshade the hipster irony by having the characters point out how sexist/racist/ableist something is.
Many examples of this can be seen in The Big Bang Theory, where the adorkable male characters say offensively sexist things all the time, but because the audience realises these horrible things are horrible, we’re implicitly asked to forgive them. The following video does an excellent job of explaining the problems with hipster sexism. Everything said about sexism applies to the other bad -isms equally.
Satire is the ridicule of vice or folly. Its ostensible goal is to take an individual person, a type of person, an individual folly, or a type of folly, and expose it to public scrutiny. Satire doesn’t have to be funny, though it very often is. Satire makes a political comment. Gulliver’s Travels is a very old example — a work of political and social satire by an Anglican priest, historian, and political commentator. Jonathan Swift parodied popular travelogues of his day in creating this story of a sea-loving physician’s travels to imaginary foreign lands. The Paddington Bear movie offers a gently satirical view of a particular kind of middle-class white English person. Pride and Prejudice does the same to the gentry.
Parody: A parody mimics the style of a particular genre, work, or author. The purpose is to mock a trivial subject by presenting it in an exaggerated and more elegant way than it normally deserves. Parodies are the most popular and widely used form of burlesque. An example (and subcategory) of the parody is the mock-heroic. Mock-heroic stories imitate the form and style of an epic poem (like Homer’s Odyssey); which is quite formal and complex. Mock-heroics induce humor by presenting insignificant subjects in the long, sophisticated style of epic poetry. Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories are often mock-heroic. In “The Half-Skinned Deer” we have a mythical hero who doesn’t quite make it back home. In “The Mud Below” we have a rodeo rider who thinks he’s a cowboy, but in fact he knows nothing about horses, or any of the traditional skills; he wants to become the bull — a symbol of masculinity — but is of course beaten by the bull. In children’s stories, you’ll often find a parody in the form of a carnivalesque tale.
If Princess Smartypants and The Day The Crayons Quit teach us how not to do it, how do we create stories which genuinely subvert reader expectations, forcing readers to examine their prior beliefs?
One way of subverting reader expectations is to twist GENRE expectations.
The post WW2 anti-Western subverted the traditional Western by forcing the audience to endure the dark hardships of the people inhabiting the new West, challenging them to reconsider beliefs they may have had about the value of expansionism at all costs. The audience was ready for this of course, because they’d just lived through a couple of massive wars.
You Can’t Trust Audiences
The problem with subversive humour, such as irony, satire and parody, is that the audience doesn’t necessarily come to the party. This is true of audiences of all ages.
Larry McMurtry went out of his way to write an anti-Western when he wrote the Lonesome Dove series, but readers consider his main characters heroic, and the West feels to us, from the safety of our homes, like a kind of utopia. He did his best to fix this in The Streets of Laredo. Comanche Moon is very violent and dark. But if you only read the Pulitzer Prize winner in this series you may well miss the wider anti-Western messages. Likewise, when test audiences of Hud were asked which character they admired the most, a huge proportion of them said they admired Hud — written to be very obviously the tragic antihero. Instead, audiences were highly critical of his morally upright father.
Fast forward 40 years and audiences empathised with the morally despicable Walter White while criticising his wife for opposing him. You can’t trust audiences. There is definitely a case to be made for being obvious.
As Heather Scutter comments with regard to jokes in children’s fiction, “apparent subversion may prove, on deconstruction, to mask a form of socialization which actually reinforces existing cultural values and beliefs, and encourages the child [reader] to accept the status quo“.Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature by Carolyn Daniel
I recently took a close look at the taxonomy of humour as suggested by the main guy at The Onion. One of the categories he suggests is, of course, Irony. In that post I question whether young readers necessarily understand irony, which is a main feature of children’s humour, but then modern books (especially picture books) are aimed at a dual audience (adult readers and their children alike). To take a popular middle grade example, about half the jokes in a David Walliams books are decidedly ‘adult’ — not surprising given that Walliams comes from an adult comedy background.
Jeff Kinney thought he was writing Diary of a Wimpy Kid for adults, and it remains unclear the extent to which kids ‘get’ the irony in his jokes, and another question again: Are kids who get the jokes able to critique them? When Kinney makes fun of fat hairy people at the pool, do child readers understand that Kenny intends to poke fun at Greg Heffley for being grossed out rather than at the fat hairy people at the pool?
Animal Farm is often named as a satire on dictatorship, but Margaret Blount questions its success as such:
[Animal Farm] is a chronicle of the sad sameness of human nature and the ultimate absorption of every revolutionary movement — the endlessly turning wheel of conquest, power, corruption and decline. If you removed the moral, it would be no more memorable than the kind of sermon that tells one what ought to be done by giving a gloomy and prophetic chain of consequences that will be brought about if one persists in the way one is going.”Margaret Blount
The Satire Paradox
“The Satire Paradox” is a podcast from season one of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History series. This tenth episode is well worth a listen for those interested in children’s literature because there are particular implications for writing humour directed at an audience who are still learning what is ironic, what is straight. And, as Gladwell points out, adults are hardly immune from interpreting a stand-up comic exactly in line with how they already see the world.
Basically, leftie comedy news anchors in America are popular with both right and leftwing voters because their jokes are interpreted in whichever way the audience sees fit.
The lesson here: Know your audience. Easier said than done.
Other Examples For Close Consideration
Work By Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides is a writer who likes to subvert genre. Below he talks about his books The Marriage Plot (a novel) and Fresh Complaint (his first short story collection):
I guess I wanted to subvert the genre. You have lots of stories where you have an older male preying upon a younger woman, so I was just trying to subvert the conventions of that kind of story. In that respect, [Fresh Complaint is] like The Marriage Plot, where I was trying to subvert the conventions of the marriage plot.
I think we’ve come to a point in literary history where anything you try to write, you’re quickly aware of the precedents of that kind of story. And there’s only two ways to do something new. One way is to make fun of the convention, to send it up. Which is all well and good, but tends to leave a kind of aroma of irony after it, which is a little bit superior in tone and mocking.
If you still care about your characters, and care about the world, you stay in the realistic mode, but subvert the tale and the normal telling of the tale by trying to express a different side of the experience. I didn’t want to make fun of the marriage plot only to make fun of it. I also wanted to write about young people in love, and what it feels like to be in love. I don’t want my work to just show how false things are, and how inauthentic everything is. Life doesn’t feel inauthentic or false to me. It feels quite real. And I’m concerned with it.Vulture
The Case Of The Matriarchal Dystopia
Also in 2017 we have the highly lauded The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Barack Obama listed this book at the top of his favourite reads of 2017. The Power also won The Orange Prize. This is a novel which reimagines an inverted dystopian future where everyone lives under a violent matriarchy rather than under a violent patriarchy, as we do now. This is an inversion, not a subversion. What is the ultimate message? “If women ruled the world they’d be just as bad as men.” This is a misanthropist view taken for granted, but is it really true? History has offered us just a handful of matriarchal cultures and they looked nothing like a dystopia, except perhaps for certain men whose idea of a good life was domination. When storytellers encourage audiences to fear the power of women, that is not helpful to the fight for equality. The Power is a failed subversion, if it ever set out to be one.
Hipster Racism and Hipster Ableism
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) is very much reliant upon its audience picking racism and ableism for what it is. The most racist of the characters is punished heavily for his racism. First, Sam Rockwell’s character is fired from his job by the new black chief, though it’s not for being racist, but for beating up a white guy. He is also punished in a fire, scarred for life by his burns. Again, this wasn’t punishment ‘for being racist’, which is interesting because thematically that’s the exact reason he had to be punished. If he had been punished directly for his racism, that would have felt too much like didacticism, at odds with the aim of the humour — to get the audience onside by trusting us to know racism when we see it. Significantly, this racist character undergoes a redemption arc, realising that he can do something good for other people even when he doesn’t have to. It was the burning itself which taught him to dob in the rape-boasting soldier. We saw him dismiss someone else’s fire — “I’m not a police officer anymore so it’s not my problem.” This telegraphed the redemption arc to come.
Peter Dinklage’s underdog character is referred to as The Midget by everyone in the town. I saw this film in a theatre and the audience laughed every time a character called him a midget. Of course, if we didn’t know that midget is offensive, we wouldn’t be laughing. That would just be his moniker. Again, this is the writer drawing us in with a wink and a nudge, trusting us to get it.
But what is the real-world effect of hipster irony? For story purposes we are encouraged to dismiss sexist/racist/ableist characters. We enjoy seeing them punished. Their outdated ideas justify the punishment. Hipster irony is also a comment on the very real racism and ableism that exists in many small towns such as Ebbing, Missouri. The writer of Three Billboards covers his ass not by lampshading at the dialogue level — unlike in The Big Bang Theory there’s no one sitting on a couch pointing out the racism — but by bringing in a black cop who is the most sensible, reasonable and level-headed guy in town. “See?” says the film, “This isn’t racist when the black guy is the best guy in town. Look at all these white fools.”
This trend looks to me like the PoC version of the Female Maturity Principle, in which black characters are given the job of educating racist white folk. Like female characters, these good guy black characters play ‘the straight man’, and enter the story as fully-realised (but flat) reasonably folk. As long as this is the case, PoC can never be the stars of the story, because the overriding feature of a ‘hero’ is the anagnorisis aspect. If you’re ever wondering who the main character of a story is, ask “Why changes the most?” That’ll be the star of the show. A character can’t change if they arrive on stage/on the page as a tool in the character arc of another character.
Though hailed as a feminist triumph for depiction of the Frances McDormand female antihero character, dig just a little deeper and you’ll see Three Billboards has done nothing new in its storytelling. In line with the last 3000 years of storytelling, the character arc was given to a despicable white guy.
It’s worth noting, too, that for people of colour living in small towns such as Ebbing, Missouri, the hipster racism fails to be escapist, because it’s an everyday lived reality. And that professional Black reviewers consistently rated this film lower than white reviewers.
Children And Irony
A child’s ability to understand irony depends on all sorts of things, including culture and subculture. A child from a heavily ironic family will naturally learn to pick irony, and use it, at an earlier age. Certain cultures — Japan is one I know about — accepts and expects far less irony than typical Western subcultures. Even within the West, there’s a subculture called ‘hipster irony’, in which any sort of racist/sexist/ageist/ableist joke can be told with the shared understanding that the speaker is not really racist/sexist/ageist/ableist. This shared understanding binds subgroups together. However, hipster irony has justifiably come under some fire for perhaps actually reinforcing ideas the group purports to disagree with.
Children don’t understand all the different kinds of irony all at once.
- Earlier studies believed that children didn’t understand irony until the age of eight or ten, but these studies were conducted in a lab environment and ‘irony’ was mainly limited to ‘sarcasm.’
- Later studies suggest children can understand hyperbole by age four.
- It takes another two years before children can start to get a handle on sarcasm.
- Sarcasm remains one of the easiest forms of irony for children to understand.
- Sarcasm and hyperbole are associated with positive experiences for children. (I would have guessed that sarcasm is not an overall positive form of communication.)
- Euphemisms and rhetorical questions are associated with conflict.
- Fathers are more likely to use sarcasm.
- Mothers are more likely to use rhetorical questions.
Adults and Psychology
It’s not just children’s writers who should be thinking about this.
In the “What Is Technology Doing To Us?” episode of The Waking Up Podcast, Sam Harris (who I don’t always agree with) talks to Tristan Harris, who touches on a peculiar psychological bug in which humans can be told a story, then told in the same paragraph that that story is blatantly untrue, but later it turns out we’ve forgotten the ‘it’s untrue’ part of the message and accidentally held onto the story. This is perhaps because the human brain is wired really well to remember story. Harris touches on this phenomenon again in the “Living With Violence” episode, in which Gavin de Becker gives the audience an example about violent kangaroos, then tells us that everything he just said is totally wrong. Be careful when using this trick to try and persuade your audience of something. They may end up misremembering that kangaroos give clear signals before they kick you in the mouth. (They don’t.)
Humans have a bunch of memory errors. It pays to be aware of these if you’re ever called to the jury.
Some questions for writers of children’s humour
- If your viewpoint character expresses nasty views towards another person/group of people (I’m still seeing a lot of hatred directed towards fat people), will the young reader understand that ‘this is the character being awful because they are awful’, or is this character modelling the behaviour the author means to call out as wrong?
- Who is the likely audience for your particular story? Sophisticated kids with hipster parents, or do you think there’s a chance this has an international audience?
- If your subversive humour will be understood only by a certain proportion of young readers, does this matter? Menippean satire is a subcategory of satire aimed at attacking mental attitudes rather than specific individuals or entities. (Alice In Wonderland is an example from the children’s book world.)
- Are you hoping to make fun of an individual (real or fictional) or of a group? Menippean satire passes criticism of the ideas of certain character tropes and on the single-minded mental attitudes, or “humours”, that they represent: the pedant. Common victims include the braggart, the bigot, the miser, the quack and the seducer. In children’s stories it’s commonly the schoolyard bully, the evil teacher, the overprotective parent, the prissy blonde girl.
- If you are going for Menippean satire, if your subversive humour were inadvertently swallowed as straight, does this harm any group of people?
The Importance of Subversion In Children’s Stories
Alison Lurie, author of Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature makes the following argument about how children’s books can affect the common good:
The great subversive works of children’s literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.Race, Culture and Power in Children’s Stories
Jack Zipes talks specifically about the role of schools in subverting the status quo, and it comes down to teaching students to be critical:
[Schools in the West] are geared towards making children into successful consumers and competitors in a ‘free’ world dictated by market conditions…If storytellers are to be effective on behalf of children in schools…it is important to try to instil a sense of community, self-reflecting and self-critical community, in the children to demonstrate how the ordinary can become extraordinary…Schools are an ideal setting for this ‘subversive’ type of storytelling…if schools want…to show that they can be other than the institutions of correction, discipline, and distraction that they tend to be.
In adult stories, the ‘absurdist’ genre comes closest to achieving the same ends, with absurdism’s emphasis on the corporate world. Perhaps subversive children’s stories are the childhood equivalent of absurdism, minus some of the darkest tropes. The corporation is swapped out for the school.
A Piece of Advice For Subversion
Yesterday I had a dayjob training in which the trainer said, re trends: “Look for the ask behind the trend.” She was talking about dayjob things but I think it works for book trends too. So currently thinking about the ask with vampires, or dystopian, or pirates, etc.@Bibliogato
Someone I follow (unfortunately I forget who) pointed out that this advice “to look for the ask behind the trend” applies equally to subverting narrative as much as it applies to ‘picking the next trend’.
Someone else asked what exactly was meant by “look for the ask” (I’m glad they did). @sarahnlemon replied, ‘It means looking for the silent need that people are trying to fulfill.’ The ask is not the metaphor. The ask is the reader need/pain point being fulfilled.
Others gave examples, mostly @Bibliogato themself.
The ask behind mysteries: ‘Mysteries tend to get popular in times of uncertainty and social change/unrest because they’re all about restoring order to the universe.
The ask behind zombie stories: ‘Half the population is ‘dead’ (asleep, not awake, not paying attention) and destroying everything that’s left for their own ends without any care or thought whatsoever.
The ask behind pirate stories in YA: self-organizing and self-empowerment in a time of perceived lawlessness.
The ask behind vampires: Vampires are a proxy for our fear of terrorists. They look like us, walk among us, we can be turned into one but they have alien desires which involve our deaths. Showing them as capable of love means they can be rehabilitated into the community. There’s an old theory that vampires become more popular in America when Democrats are in power because conservatives see Democrats as effeminate elites who suck the life out of the working class. (According to the same theory, zombies are popular with conservatives are in power, because Democrats see conservatives as mindless drones.) There are many, many theories about vampire fiction. Others have argued vampire stories become popular when sexual shame and fear peak in the culture. In the 80s with the AIDS crisis, for example, and in the oughts with Bush’s focus on abstinence—we get Twilight and True Blood
I was at a writers’ workshop myself lately and the presenter advised us to write ‘subversive’ poetry. I didn’t put up my hand to ask what he meant us to subvert, because everyone was heads down, bums up working on a poetry assignment at the time, and this question might have derailed the entire session.
But it did strike me that so often when we sit down to write ‘subversively’, we may not have asked what exactly are we subverting here? This is an essential question and we must ask it of ourselves at some point in the writing process. The presenter was simply using ‘subversive’ as a descriptor, same as he was using ‘anarchist’. He wanted us to write ‘subversive, anarchist’ poetry because ‘kids are really drawn to it.’
Ask: Whose need is being fulfilled?
What Really Makes Katniss Stand Out? Peeta, Her Movie Girlfriend from NPR, in which the Movie Girlfriend trope is gender swapped.
Dragon-Slayer vs. Dragon-Sayer is a paper by Keeling and Sprague which discusses the female hero as opposed to the ‘heroine’, which may be considered a different thing altogether — a ‘hero in drag’.