Gender Inversion As Gags In Children’s Stories

There’s this gag in many humorous children’s stories which almost everyone else finds hilarious and I find really troublesome. It’s when a male character dresses as a female character. This gender inversion in itself is meant to be funny. But why?

The gender inversion story is as old as myth. Take Loki. Loki can be a cool example of the literal gender-binary-blurring of the Archetypal Trickster. As well as transforming into various animals, Loki also presents as a woman occasionally if a trick demands it, and in one famous case, does both, shifting into a female horse and becoming the mother of a magical beast. Marvel has deemed their version of Loki officially gender fluid,

I’m not talking about the kind of gender fluidity in story which subverts the very idea of a strict gender binary.

I’m also not talking about the long history of girls dressed up as boys, which is not done for comic effect. Scholars who have studied this have noticed that when girls dress up as boys in stories she either dies the end or returns to her pre-adventure, feminine state, or is ‘reintroduced into the stereotypical feminine matrix’, as Maria Nikolajeva says in Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers.

gender inversions paddington bear
Very few people talk about sexism in children’s films but to me it sticks out like a shart on a plane.

I’m talking specifically about boys and men dressed up as women and girls for laughs.

Humour can be either very dependent on an escapist mindset or the very opposite. Laughter is a diversion, much like fantasy, though it also often requires an understanding of what is actually going on.

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Two Types Of Closure In Storytelling

locked wooden door

‘Closure’ is a word borrowed from the field of psychology and describes describe an individual’s desire for a firm answer to a question, and an aversion toward ambiguity. We are very uncomfortable with ambiguity, and sometimes make bad decisions simply to avoid that horrible feeling of hanging in limbo.

Story endings can be classified in various ways — happy versus sad, satisfying vs unsatisfying. Another useful way to think of endings involves the extent of ‘closure’. Importantly, there are two types of closure.

Structural versus Psychological Closure

1. STRUCTURAL CLOSURE is a satisfactory round-up of plot.

2. PSYCHOLOGICAL CLOSURE brings the main character’s personal conflicts into balance. Because it involves characterisation, this type of ending is normally more interesting.

In children’s stories, these two types of ending normally coincide.

Sometimes, in an especially masterful story, children and adults get a different ending. Toy Story 3 is the standout example. If you watch a live audience of Toy Story 3, adults bawl their eyes out but children do not. That’s because the children have had a happy ending so far as they are concerned: The toys are all together. That’s what children can relate to. Adults, on the other hand, can relate to the ending of childhood. Adults know that we’ll never get our childhood back, so when Andy plays with Woody for the last time, before handing Woody over to someone else, adults know that this moment marks the end of Andy’s childhood and he’s never getting it back. None of us are ever getting our childhood back.

For Toy Story 3, children get their structural ending, but adults also get psychological ending. It is not easy to write so successfully for a dual audience, creating a sad story for adults but a happy story for children, but the screenwriters of Toy Story 3 managed it.

When it comes to literary short stories, readers have a higher tolerance for a one-sided ending.

CLOSURE IN SHORT STORIES

  • “A View Of Mount Warning” by Robert Drewe features structural closure but not psychological closure, because the view point character never learns whether his best friend saw him kiss his wife. Plot closure comes, sort of, because the two men resume the surface mechanics of friendship.
  • “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield is another example of structural closure (because the party ends, the goods are delivered to the bereft wife) but without emotional closure, this time because the main character is young and can’t yet process her feelings about the inequality she has just witnessed.
  • “The Love of a Good Woman” by Alice Munro is an excellent example of a short story with emotional closure but not structural closure. When you first read it, this story feels like a classic murder mystery, but — spoiler alert — the mystery is never solved for the reader.
  • “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is an example of psychological closure, because the family have learned to live with the fallen angel creeping around in the shadows. But the reader is left wondering what events will happen next. This doesn’t feel like the end of the story, plotwise.
  • Stories written for the popular market tend to have both psychological and plot closure. “Tobermory” by Saki would be an example of this.

FURTHER READING

  • The No Ending Trope — But how many of the TV Tropes examples have one type and not the other?