Humour Study: Overly Literal Characters

Atypical Netflix

Humorous stories about characters who find themselves in strife after taking instructions too literally are old stock comedy fodder. One of the earliest recorded in Europe is the fairytale Clever Hans — an ironic title, because Hans is a fool. Hans does something stupid, his mother tells him to do it differently next time. But when Hans applies the previous bit of commonsense advice to the new, slightly different situation, this leads to different trouble. Trouble increases in magnitude until he ruins his life.

If you’re anything like me, Clever Hans as a humorous tale doesn’t work. It feels out-dated, by centuries. One problem is the heinous nature of the repercussions. Hans ‘stupidly’ plucks out the eyeballs of the farm animals — an example of foolishness which seems cruel rather than funny to me.

But has the archetype of the overly literal fool gone out of fashion? Not at all. In fact, we’re having a bit of a renaissance. I suspect this is partly to do with increasing autism awareness (which is a different thing entirely from autism acceptance). The stereotypical autistic person, promoted by the contemporary corpus of fiction is:

  • White
  • Male
  • Good at maths/fixing and hacking computers/memorising facts about specialty area
  • Non-empathetic
  • And overly literal, to his own detriment

CASE STUDY: ATYPICAL

Sam of Netflix’s Atypical series is an excellent showcase of this popular — but ultimately shallow — understanding of level one autism:

Sam is a basically a human whiteboard illustrating the triad of impairments. He talks in a somewhat rat-a-tat monotone voice (demonstrating atypical verbal development), can’t understand social cues and takes everything very literally (social and emotional difficulties), and has obsessions (imaginative restriction or repetitive behaviour), which manifests in his case as an all-consuming interest in Antarctica and the Arctic and all the fauna of those environments, especially penguins.

What Netflix Comedy Atypical Gets Right and Wrong About Autism

Overly literal interpretation of language is not a characteristic shared by every person with a diagnosis of autism. Many autistic people can throw sarcasm with the best of them. Satire — top level comedy — is not lost on autistic people. At the moment, any overly literal comedic character tends to have a pop-culture diagnosis of autism whether the creators declare that or not. The Big Bang Theory is an excellent example of that phenomenon.

This is why I am delighted to see brilliant Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby has revealed her autism diagnosis publicly,a generous act, given that she’s now going to be seconded as ambassador for yet another marginalised group, whether she wants to invest all that time or not. Gadsby does not fit the autistic stereotype. Fortunately for us, she has the gift of seeing satire and absurdity at the deepest level, commenting ironically, manipulating audience emotion with fine precision. Gadsby shares this skill with many in the autistic community.

Perhaps this signals the beginning of a more diverse representation of autism in pop-culture. I hope comedy writers will start pushing the boat out when writing autistic characters, beyond mishaps caused by ‘overly literal’ interpretations. It’s far more difficult to pinpoint humour in the very real differences between autistic and neurotypical communication styles. It really does require #OwnVoices level insight.

WHAT’S BEHIND THE STEREOTYPE?

The following observations are from an #ActuallyAutistic perspective:

Autism and Literal Speech

Taking things literally is an extremely famous autistic trait, suggesting that irony, sarcasm, metaphor is entirely beyond us. But these things often aren’t [beyond us at all], so what’s really going on?

In my various communications with autistic folk (quite a lot, considering how anti-social I am) I’ve found increasing evidence that autistic people can recognise figurative, ironic language quite well, most of the time. I think the real story is a bit more complex. Straightforward irony and sarcasm can be pretty clearly signposted in speech after all – the whole ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ thing.

I think autistic people can get pretty adept at spotting these signs and even use them themselves. I’m going to basically think out loud now all the instances where I have taken things literally, to see if a pattern exists. Please join in.

So one type of implication that I *always* run the risk of missing is implied instruction. Such as, ‘ooh it’s got dark’ meaning ‘put the light on’ or ‘well, someone has to do it’ meaning ‘I want you to do it’. I miss this kind of thing very frequently. However, I don’t tend to miss implied criticism at all. In fact, I’m liable to hear it even when it isn’t there. All the time.

So what’s the difference? I think it’s to do with interaction with other mental states. The implicit instruction one is demanding some action as a result, and I think autistic people have a great deal of inertia a lot of the time that slows us changing tasks. This makes picking up on and acting on implicit instructions even less likely? Whereas picking up on criticism fits nicely with the sort of C-PTSD we often pick up from our endless failed interactions with neurotypical people — we become very very sensitive to such things and have been conditioned to expect criticism – is that just me?

Similarly, I tend to totally misunderstand sarcastic criticism. Like if a friend says, jokingly, that something I did was crap, I’d unfailingly take this to heart. I’ve tended to avoid people who like using this sort of humour. Whereas sarcastic praise is fine. I can handle that, even though it’s critical. It’s very confusing.

Another type of thing I’ll misunderstand is exaggeration. I’ll always take it at face value. If someone says they’ve had the worst day ever, I’ll believe that and be horrified for them. Anyone else do this? It’s like my brain doesn’t accept exaggeration as an option. So many times I’ve been amazed that people have seemingly recovered so quickly from what they described as dreadful, terrible things. I just never picked up on the fact they were exaggerating for effect.

Whereas I’m actually very good at identifying when people aren’t telling the truth, especially those little white avoidant lies like ‘I’m fine’ when they’re not. This seems to fit an easy pattern I can handle. I don’t know why. I’m not sure whether there’s a unifying pattern here, but I think that the issues around inference become more complicated when criticism is involved, due to the insidious effects of trauma in autistic people.

Once again it seems possible that an old obvious identifier of autism may actually be inextricably mixed up with the symptoms of trauma, like so many other traits.

We end up wondering what autism would be like without the trauma – how would it present? Maybe one day we’ll find out?

Pete Wharmby on Twitter, @commaficionado

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Child Moves House Trope In Middle Grade Fiction

Edna Eicke New Yorker July 29th, 1950

Child moves house and starts at new school. This trope is hard to write well because it has been done so many times before. But it’s very useful, because many children’s stories are about friendship, and all stories about friendship must start from a point of loneliness. Everyone is lonely when they move to a new place.

child moves house

Some specific plot elements, or motifs, that we find in children’s novels are not as prominent in the mainstream fiction. The first is coming to a new home. Naturally, this element—connected to the basic motif of dislocation, inherent in all fiction—is present in quite a number of mainstream novels, such as Jane Eyre or Mansfield Park. However, I would state that the new home is more dominant in children’s fiction and also more significant, since the change of setting is a more dramatic event in a child’s life than in an adult’s. The character’s reaction to the change is very revealing.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Fiction by Maria Nikolajeva

Maria Nikolajeva published that paragraph in 2002 and goes easy on the child moves house trope. Since then, despite every children’s author knowing full well that the child moves house trope — or motif — or whatever you’d like to call it had been done thousands of times before, we get to 2017 and Betsy Bird (librarian and reviewer for School Libarary Journal) has this to say about the state of middle grade literature:

If you read too many middle grade novels in a given year, you begin to sense patterns that no one else can see. In 2017 I’ve started down that path. I’ll give you an example of a particular pattern: The new kid in school. It’s not a new idea for a book (Joseph Campbell would probably tell you that it’s just a variation on the old “A Stranger Comes to Town” storytelling motif) but this year it’s gotten extreme. In book after book authors have hit the same notes. Kid is new. Kid is awkward in the lunchroom (seriously – if I never read another lunch room scene again it’ll be too soon). Kid makes friends with outcasts. Kid triumphs by being true to his or her own self. Simple, right? They blend together after a while, but it’s not the fault of the format. A good book, a really good book, transcends its format. Much of what I’ve read this year has already faded into a fuzzy haze in my brain.

Betsy Bird, SLJ

The contributors to TV Tropes have also noticed the moving house trope has become super popular in the last 10 years. The trope New House, New Problems refers specifically to a new family moving into a new home, whereupon strange happenings begin to reveal themselves. It’s not just a middle grade thing — it’s a horror thing.

Who knows what contributed to this trend, but I suspect big hits such as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline have something to do with it. The TV Tropes page also points out that every other Goosebumps book begins with a kid moving to a new house. In young adult stories we have the huge successes of Twilight, 10 Things I Hate About You and Mean Girls, so audiences must love the trope. Writers love it too, because it allows a natural discovery of a new milieu, as our new student discovers how the new environment works, along with readers.

CHILDREN MOVE HOUSE BOOKS

Observations from the list below: Many children’s series include one book in which the character moves house. Some authors rely on the moving house storyline time and again. Jean Little is one such author. There are a large number of moving house books entitled simply, “Moving House”.

  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Moving Molly by Shirley Hughes (a picture book example)
  • Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg
  • Journey to Topaz: A Story of the Japanese American Evacuation
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman
  • The Turtle of Oman by Yoshiko Uchida
  • Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • The Pinballs by Betsy Byars
  • A Desperate Road To Freedom: The Underground Railroad Diary of Julia May Jackson by Karleen Bradford
  • Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi by Susan Aihoshi
  • Banished From Our Home: The Acadian Diary of Angelique Richard by Sharon Stewart
  • Meet Addy An American Girl by Connie Rose Porter
  • Annie by Leonore Fleischer
  • The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans
  • Red Thread Sisters by Carol Antoinette Peacock
  • A Journey To The New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipper, Mayflower, 1620 by Kathryn Lasky
  • The Woods At The End of Autumn Street by Lois Lowry
  • Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky by Sandra Dallas
  • Fly Me Home by Polly Ho-Yen
  • Georgie’s Moon by Chris Woodworth
  • The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941
  • Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer
  • Chantrea Conway’s Story A Voyage From Cambodia in 1975
  • Exiles from the War: The War Guest Diary of Charlotte Mary Twiss by Jean Little
  • Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen
  • Six-Dinner Sid by Inga Moore
  • One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping: The Diary of Julie Weiss by Barry Denenberg
  • Journey To America by Sonia Levitin
  • The Summer Before from the Babysitter’s Club series by Ann M. Martin
  • To Build A Land by Sally Watson
  • Hinterland by Caroline Brothers
  • X Marks the Spot by Joan de Hamel
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  • Le Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman
  • The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
  • Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
  • All The Children Were Sent Away by Sheila Garrigue
  • Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan
  • Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
  • Laugh With The Moon by Shauna Burg
  • Rocky Road by Rose Kent
  • The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 Mirror Lake Internment Camp by Barry Dunenberg
  • Whatever Happened To Janie? by Caroline B. Cooney
  • The War Within: A Novel of the Civil War by Carol Matas
  • Nell Dunne: Ellis Island, 1904 by Kathleen Duey
  • A Boy of Heart Mountain by Barbara Bazaldua
  • Sarah & Katie by Dori White
  • Changes for Kirsten: A Winter Story from the American Girls series by Janet Beeler Shaw
  • Seaglass Summer by Anjali Banerjee
  • Gemma by Noel Streafield
  • Miss Cathy Leonard by Catherine Woolley
  • Ginnie and Geneva by Catherine Woolley
  • Dancing Through The Snow by Jean Little
  • Orphan At My Door: The Home Chld Diary of Victoria Cope by Jean Little
  • Aniela Kaminski’s Story: A Voyage from Poland During World War 2 by Clare Pastore
  • Fiona McGilray’s Story: A Voyage from Ireland in 1849 by Clare Pastore
  • Grandpa’s Mountain by Carolyn Reeder
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  • Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson
  • Journey Home by Yoshiko Uchida
  • Listening for Leroy by Betsy Hearne
  • Tumbleweed Skies by Valerie Sherrard
  • Indian Summer by Barbara Girion
  • The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  • Mallory on the Move by Laurie B. Friedman
  • Anya’s War by Andrea Alban Gosline
  • McDuff Moves In by Rosemary Wells
  • Bruce’s Big Move by Ryan T. Higgins
  • Amber Brown Is On The Move by Bruce Coville
  • Dear Poppy by Ronni Arno
  • Topsy and Tim Move House by Jean Adamson
  • When A Dragon Moves In Again by Jodi Moore
  • The Orphan of Ellis Island by Elvira Woodruff
  • Alexander, Who’s Not (Do You Hear me? I Mean It!) Going To Move by Judith Viorst, who also write Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • Yours Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick
  • The Leaving Morning by Angela Johnson
  • Goodbye House by Frank Asch
  • Anywhere But Paradise by Anne Bustard
  • Little Miss Trouble Moving House by Roger Hargreaves
  • We’re Moving House by Ann Johns
  • Moving House by Neil Innes
  • Dash by Kirby Larson
  • A Kiss Goodbye by Audrey Penn
  • The Berenstain Bears’ Moving Day by Stan Berenstain
  • Moving Day by Meg Cabot
  • Moving Day by Ralph Fletcher
  • Moving Day by Fran Manushkin
  • Home From Far by Jean Little
  • It’s Moving Day! by Pamela Hickman
  • From Anna by Jean Little
  • Tigger’s Moving Day by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld
  • Mine for Keeps by Jean Little
  • Moving Day by Jo S. Kittinger
  • Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf
  • Moving Day by Anthony G. Brandon
  • Moving Day! by Jess Stockham
  • Cranberry Moving Day by Wende Devlin
  • Moving Day by Sue McMillan
  • Moving Day In Feather Town by Ann M. Martin
  • The Secret of NIMH by Robert Frisby
  • What About My Goldfish? written by Jennifer Plecas and illustrated by Pamela D. Greenwood
  • Moving House written by Anne Civardi and Michelle Bates, illustrated by Stephen Cartwright
  • Boomers Big Day written by Constance W. McGeorge and illustrated by Mary Whyte
  • Big Ernie’s New Home: A Story For Young Children Who Are Moving written by Teresa and Whitney Martin
  • A House for Hermit Crab by Eric Carle
  • Two Nests written by Laurence Anholt, illustrated by Jim Coplestone 

FILM AND TV EXAMPLES

  • Anne With An E
  • Inside Out
  • Felicity (about a young woman starting college)
  • 10 Things I Hate About You
  • Strawberry Shortcake: Housewarming Surprise
  • Mean Girls

In stories for an adult audience, horror often begins with a couple or a family moving into a new home… which is haunted.

Header illustration: Edna Eicke New Yorker July 29th, 1950. Two little girls stare at each other from a distance as one moves into her new house.

The Female Injures Male Trope In Children’s Stories

Italian writer, Waltz Molina (1915-1997) woman hitting man with roses

Female on male violence is often used for comedic effect in storytelling. This holds true even when male on female violence would never fly. Is this a double standard?

I have looked for this particular storytelling device on TV Tropes, where you can find most any trope under the sun, but haven’t yet found this particular romantic plot device. I’m not sure if I’m one of the only people to have noticed this is a thing — a relatively new thing, I might add — a sort of inverse of the Rescue Romance, which is very old indeed.

This illustration is by Italian Waltz Molina.

AN EXAMPLE FROM ADULT ROMANCE

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about in The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This is the passage where Clare first meets Henry (the two romantic leads). Clare is 6 and Henry is 36, which is okay and not weird, because this book is about a time traveler and the real-time age difference is more respectable than that. Anyhow, Clare is in a field, and Henry has arrived naked, and is presently standing partially obscured behind shrubbery. This is written from Henry’s POV:

“Who’s there?” Clare hisses. She looks like a really pissed off goose, all neck and legs. I am thinking fast.

“Greetings, Earthling,” I intone kindly.

“Mark! You nimrod!” Clare is casting around for something to throw, and decides on her shoes, which have heavy, sharp heels. She whips them off and does throw them. I don’t think she can see me very well, but she lucks out and one of them catches me in the mouth. My lip starts to bleed.

The phrase ‘pissed off goose’ lends a comical tone to this passage; although this scene contains violence, it’s a comic, safe kind of injury that results.

AN EXAMPLE FROM CHILDREN’S ROMANCE

Here’s a version of the same thing from Tangled, which I find disturbingly violent given how realistic 3D animation is getting. The frying pan violence is a recurring gag, and the video below is a montage of each frying pan scene, although the scene in which Rapunzel meets Flynn is an extended female on male act of violence which somehow feels more disturbing than the video can portray:

AN EXAMPLE FROM A MIDDLE-GRADE MOUSE DETECTIVE STORY

From Geronimo Stilton The Mystery In Venice
From Geronimo Stilton The Mystery In Venice

AN EXAMPLE FROM A POPULAR YOUNG ADULT TV SERIES

I don’t watch Once Upon A Time, but an io9 headline reads: Watch two fairytale characters get turned on beating a man senseless.

Commonsense Media (a website I trust for its balanced written summaries) says that Once Upon A Time is for ages 12+.

Here’s a scene from Pretty Little Liars:

female injures male trope from pretty little liars

INVERSION DOES NOT EQUAL SUBVERSION

I have written about this before in a discussion of Pixar’s film Brave.

There is a long history of male on female violence, which is alive and kicking in comic book world, for starters. But if we want to change this culture (and I admit that this is a big ‘if’, since many feel they’re entitled to their fantasies no matter what kind of place they came from), the way to do it is not by simply reversing gender roles.

SO WHY THE FEMALE INJURES MALE INJURY TROPE?

In other words, why is it cute and sexy for a female to slightly (or significantly) injure a potential male love interest?

I have a few ideas, though nothing conclusive:

  • In an era where women hope for equality in relationships with men, part of that equality includes the illusion of equal strength.
  • Or perhaps the physicality involved in injuring a male love interest is simply a symbol for true emotional and psychological equality.
  • The important thing here is the male’s response. A female character is testing out a male character’s partnership potential by doing something to him which, in certain males, would result in a violent backlash. By responding with humour and kindness, a male character who has just been injured seems safe and attractive.
  • We seem to be firmly entrenched in the era of S&M. I’m going partly by the huge popularity of 50 Shades Of Grey. In a minor way, this trope is perhaps a prelude to kink.

When male to female violence occurs on screen, as well it should, as a reflection of many terrible real-world situations, then we don’t see such stories given a G rating. The male/female strength differential is such that female to male violence is comical, whereas the opposite is never so, yet nor can I accept that it is entirely harmless.

MORE ON TANGLED

I am not a huge fan of this film in general, frying pan violence aside. Others have written well on this topic so I don’t have to:

Feminist Film Review of Tangled from Bitch Flicks

Tangled Is A Celebration Of White Femininity from Womanist Musings

TV tropes calls female on male violence a double standard. This is a double standard in that the same inverted would be worse. It would also likely be more damaging, as people who have been through male puberty are have, on average, about twice the upper body strength as people who’ve been through female puberty. (The difference in lower body strength is nowhere near as big.)

This graph shows that almost all men are stronger than almost all women.

In the TV show Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, one episode explores whether female on male violence really is a double standard, if the person who hits the other is tiny, weak and effects no actual physical harm. As audience we are left to decide for ourselves whether girls hitting boys does more harm to boys, and whether girls should be punished differently.

Genevieve, the diminutive character from Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. Genevieve hits a boy she believes raped her autistic sister.

Header illustration is by Italian artist Waltz Molina (1915-1997).

Inspector Gadget: How Children’s Media Has Changed

Inspector Gadget

When a children’s story gets a remake we see more clearly how storytelling has changed. Inspector Gadget makes for a case study.

Inspector Gadget
In which girl character and dog character have equal billing

Interestingly, Esquire calls this ‘the digital era’, under the idea that the use of computers has an integral impact on narrative. The medium is the message, and all that.

1. FASTER PACE

Steven DeNure, president and COO of DHX Media, was thrilled to acquire the rights to Gadget in 2012. But he worried the old Gadget wouldn’t appeal to its target audience of young children.

For starters, the pacing was painfully slow. Kids today are used to fast-moving commercials, quick cuts, and a thing called the Internet.

2. FEMALE CHARACTERS ARE STILL DEALING WITH A WORLD IN WHICH THEY’RE SO OFTEN RELEGATED TO SECONDARY ROLES UNDER BUMBLING MALE PROTAGONISTS

Gadget remains as clueless as ever, and Penny remains just as brainy.

This is related to what has been called The Hermione Trope. We see it in movies such as Monster House, too, and ParaNorman, in which the bossy brainy girl saves the day, but completely behind the scenes. 35 years later, girls are still swots, boys are still adventurous etc. Boys see that they don’t need to be such swots to get on in the world — they’ll be the stars of the story because of their gender.

3. CHILD CHARACTERS ARE MORE FREQUENTLY SEXUALISED

“What we wanted to do was make Penny a little older,” says Chalopin, who estimates she was between 10 and 12 before and is now in her mid-teens. She also has a new love interest: Dr. Claw’s spiky-haired nephew, Talon. “He’s more of a kid of today,” Chalopin says.

4. ‘GOOD LOOKS’ ARE EVER MORE IMPORTANT, FOR BOTH BOY AND GIRL CHARACTERS

[Talon] makes a great counterpart to Penny with his good looks and his charm.

5. MOBILE PHONES AND OTHER TECHNOLOGIES

“Penny had a smartphone way before it existed,” Chalopin says, so that wouldn’t impress children today. To get around the problem, he created “holographic protection” for Brain and a computer that appears out of thin air when Penny needs it.

6. CHILDREN’S CONTENT CAN’T JUST BE FOR CHILDREN

Financing remains an uphill big struggle. Much of what’s selected today, at least for content streaming services like Netflix, must not only reach a broad group of viewers but transcend countries and age groups as well. As Erik Barmack, Netflix’s vice president of global independent content, says, “The things we look for in general is if the shows transcend countries, have a new story to be told, or a new way of reimagining characters.” Gadget, he says, ticks off all three criteria.

This explains the increasingly sexualised teen characters over a pre-adolescent girl character.

– How Inspector Gadget Was Remade For A New Generation from Esquire