Body Swap Stories

Your Name movie poster

Body swap stories are high concept stories, and their popularity endures. Freaky Friday, for example, started in 1976. We keep seeing new versions.

The mother-daughter body swap is relatively ‘safe’ and the moral lesson is clear: When we literally put ourselves in cross-generational shoes, we understand the other’s point of view.

However, when the body swap is cross gender, pitfalls soon reveal themselves. Likewise, as I am finding out, middle grade human-to-pet body swap narratives are also likely to convey problematic gender ideologies.

FREAKY FRIDAY AND ME

When I was ten years old I was a massive writer of fan fiction, though it wasn’t called that then. I rarely finished any story but I was struck by one idea after another. The joy was in the writing, not in the finished product. Sometimes I’d simply write book blurbs with no intention of going any further. One day my teacher found me reading (which was fine — he ran the classroom according to Montessori philosophy), and picked up the little note I’d written to myself. I was using it as a bookmark. The note was mostly written to try out the new green, felt-tipped calligraphy marker I’d gotten for my birthday but I’d written something like: “Write a story about a girl who swaps bodies with her mother.”

“Hmm,” said my teacher, who had read this note despite me wanting to snatch it right back out of his hands. “Have you seen the film Freaky Friday?”

I had not. I told him I had not. This was the late 80s, a long time after the first adaptation (1976) and even longer before the next (1995, 2003). He looked at me suspiciously though, and I felt terrible, as if he had caught me plagiarising someone else’s idea. Perhaps all those times he’d praised my original writing were based on a lie, in his mind.

There’s nothing wrong with letting 10 year olds write fan fiction anyway, imo. Let 10 year olds write whatever they want, even if it’s derivative and unoriginal. The job of a 10-year-old is to revel in the joy of reading and writing.

I think of that shameful interaction each time I come across another body swap story, because they’re so common, no one can really be said to be plagiarising anyone else. The body swap story can be good for conveying all sorts of ‘walk-in-another-person’s-shoes’ didacticism in the most literal of plot lines, so no wonder.

Was Freaky Friday the first major story to do the body swap plot? No — take for example P.G. Wodehouse who wrote a book called Laughing Gas, published 1936.  Characters Reggie and Joey inhale laughing gas at a dentist’s office.

Wodehouse may have been inspired by the 1928 story The Master Mind of Mars by  Edgar Rice Burroughs featuring the plot line of brain transplants. At that point in history researchers were experimenting with  organ transplantation — and had been doing so, both on animals and humans, in the 18th century. (The first successful transplants didn’t happen until the 1950s.)

Although Freaky Friday was not the first popular story to introduce this plot line but is almost certainly the best known to modern culture because of the film adaptations. The original novel was by Mary Rodgers, published 1972. Rodgers also wrote Freaky Monday and Summer Switch. Due to the success of Rodgers’ first body swap novel, at  TV Tropes the body swap plot line is known as the “Freaky Friday Flip”.

A number of the hugely popular series writers for children have utilised the Freaky Friday flip at some point:

  • The Barking Ghost, Switched and Why I’m Afraid Of Bees by R.L. Stine
  • Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy Parts 1 and 2 by Dav Pilkey
  • Airhead by Meg Cabot, of Princess Diaries fame
  • Freaked Out, a Lizzie McGuire story by Alice Alfonsi
  • etc

Features Of The Freaky Friday Flip

From TV Tropes:

  • Typically, the main character achieves a deeper appreciation for the other person’s life.
  • The Flip often involves characters of different ages, genders, races, or social classes.
  • Another variation is a protagonist and antagonist switching, which usually involves each trying to undermine the other’s organisation while simultaneously trying to switch back. (See Barking Mad, below.)
  • The switch may lead to a Heel–Face Turn. That’s when the villain turns good. An inverse Breaking Bad character arc.
  • If one or both of the characters have superpowers or other special abilities, they’ll have a lot of trouble figuring their new powers out.
  • In the more traditional applications of the trope, the reason for the switch is never explained in-universe. However, the Doylist (real-life, not ‘in-universe’) reason for any application is often to force the age-old moral: To better understand others, you must experience life in their shoes.

Below I take a look at some recent body swap stories, specifically how they excel versus some more problematic tropes.

Barking Mad by Tom E. Moffatt (2015)

In 1997 Scholastic published a few body swap stories for middle grade readers by Todd Strasser and one of those is called Help! I’m Trapped In My Sister’s Body!

Barking Mad is a New Zealand publication by Tom Moffatt, and winner of The Tom Fitzgibbon Award. This story is a body swap story, human swapping with dog.

I never read Strasser’s book in the 1990s but a Goodreads review confirms that I’m right to expect a fraught relationship between brother and sister. I am able to extrapolate the moral lesson as well, because it’s standard in body-swap stories for our main character to ‘find someone’s strengths and use them for good’:

Everything is going well for Jake and his pen pal, until he realizes she is coming to visit. Now he must switch bodies with his big sister, Jessica, who does not like him at all, so that he can cover up a lie that he told his pen pal. Learn what the lie is, how they covered it up, and how the siblings worked together, ending with them actually getting along. This book is a great way to encourage teamwork and finding people’s strengths and using them for good.

Goodreads review

Presumably the main character of Strasser’s story continues to do good even after being returned to his own body.

Barking Mad features a bitchy, annoying, girly-swot teenage girl whose younger brother narrates the story of their body swap from his own close third-person point of view. The book begins in a very appealing way, with ‘mad professor’ granddad gone ‘barking mad’ after inventing a body swap device and accidentally inhabiting his dog’s body. The brother and sister find the machine, accidentally swap themselves, and now we have a Gender Bender story which actually kind of replaces the animal story I thought I was buying for my dog-loving middle-grade daughter.

Come Back Gizmo by Paul Jennings (1996)

Barking Mad is basically a 2015 retelling of a hi-lo short novel by Paul Jennings, written almost 20 years earlier.

Come Back Gizmo is one long humiliation gag. And for true humiliation, a (cishet) boy needs a female romantic opponent. The (literal) girl next door is a highly unsympathetic archetype. Jennings uses this exact description in any story with a sexually attractive girl. She is always a white girl and she always looks like this:

Oh, just look at her. Golden hair. Blue eyes. White, white teeth.

Jennings describes Samantha’s cat, though he is also describing Samantha herself, because he has demonstrated in other stories that girls are in one of two categories: classy and cheap:

Samantha is carrying her cat, Doddles. It’s one of those expensive ones with green eyes. It is a classy cat. There is nothing cheap about it.

The reader is given no reason to like this girl, and we don’t know why the boy likes her either. The truth is, he doesn’t like her at all. He is annoyingly drawn towards her because… hormones. And because boys are not encouraged (in fiction as in real life) to see pretty girls as people.

The situation of a boy hopelessly attracted to a girl he wouldn’t otherwise like as a friend draws upon a universal feeling of youthful attraction… perhaps. This might explain the popularity of the trope, in which a boy keeps making a buffoon of himself, especially in front of the girl he likes. (In a warped version of gender equality, there are stories now where girls are also the buffoons in front of hot boys.)

But there’s another side to this trope, as used in this story, which presents another ‘universal truth’: That women (and girls) are manipulative liars.

  • Jimmy assumes (as a universal truth) that Samantha would be interested in him because he ‘doesn’t have a dollar to his name’. The universal truth as presented: Girls like boys who have money. Girls are gold-diggers.
  • Samantha forges a bargain with Jimmy in exchange for a kiss. The implies a universal ‘truth’ that girls fully understand their own sexual appeal, and will manipulate hapless boys into doing exactly what they want. A secondary universal ‘truth’ is that girls are the natural gatekeepers of sex.
  • Later, Samantha lies to the ‘little man’ from the SPCA when she insists she had nothing to do with locking the dog in the boot. Implied universal truth: That girls are liars. We might code this as ‘Samantha, this particular character, is a liar’, except this plot point follows on the back of Samantha as sexually manipulative, and the attributes go hand-in-hand. Also, the trope of the manipulative, self-centred, beautiful, sexually alluring and wholly unlikeable girl is a trope we see time and again throughout history.

The most disappointing aspect of Paul Jennings’ body swap dog story: It didn’t even need the romantic subplot bookending each end. The girl exists in the story purely to heighten the humiliation aspect of Jimmy running around naked, scratching fleas, cocking a leg on lampposts.

In response to this argument I’ve heard ‘both sides’ rebuttals: Sure, the girl is a manipulative liar, but the boy really is made to look stupid in this. Surely that’s not sexist now? I mean, the girl AND the boy are presented in a bad light. In fact, if anything, it’s reverse sexism!

That’s how the argument goes. But it doesn’t hold water, because

  1. If you flipped the genders the gag in this story wouldn’t work (ie. it would just be weird and uncomfortable, seeing a girl run around naked in front of the entire neighbourhood)
  2. For this exact reason: we objectify the bodies of girls
  3. Therefore a girl’s naked body cannot be funny; her body is always viewed through a sexual lens. Only boys have the privilege of running around naked without being viewed via a sexual gaze.

And I suppose this is why we don’t get many body swap stories in which girls swap bodies with their dogs. Girls sometimes get werewolf stories instead, which is etymologically interesting: ‘Were’ means ‘man’. The female ‘werewolf’ is a very recent development in storytelling. The etymologically correct term for a female werewolf would be wifwolf, but that means ‘wife wolf’. It’s not exactly liberating to be described only in relation to a man, especially since the entire genre of werewolf stories are about ‘breaking free of constraints’, which explains why werewolf is now coded as a gender free term.

Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap was a 1980s American TV show. In each episode, main character Sam Beckett finds himself in someone else’s body. He is there to solve a crisis in their lives. This is a surprisingly earnest show, and oftentimes Sam dresses as a woman without playing it for laughs. Despite regular lighthearted moments, nothing about the tone of an episode suggests we should laugh at Sam when he dresses his masculine actor’s body in a woman’s one-piece bathing costume, for instance.

Despite the earnestness, Quantum Leap again exemplifies why it is nigh on impossible to write a gender-swap body swap story without relying on sexist stereotypes. In the clip below, the male chauvinist boss who comes onto his much younger secretary gets his comeuppance. On the surface, this is a send up of what we now call toxic masculinity.

But when proving to this guy that he’s ‘really’ a man, Sam ‘proves’ it by offering to demonstrate how he can throw a baseball. This doesn’t work as ‘proof’ unless the audience believes girls can’t throw baseballs.

Your Name (2016)

Gender Stereotyping

Your Name avoids much of the ickiness of a brother-sister body swap that we saw in Barking Mad. (Insofar as the characters know) they don’t know each other. Writers nevertheless rely on some stereotyped ideas about how boys and girls are different:

  • When transplanted into the girl’s body, the teenage boy develops a bit of an obsession with feeling her boobs. (Stereotype: Boys are obsessed with sex and will take any opportunity to be sexual with a girl.)
  • When transplanted into the boy’s body, the teenage girl is absolutely terrified at the thought of dealing with someone’s penis. (Stereotype: Girls are terrified of the penis/sex with boys. At least, sympathetic girls are. Bad girls are driven by it.)

I occasionally agree with Germaine Greer, and I agree when she writes:

The truth is … that female fearfulness [of the penis] is a cultural construct, instituted and maintained by both men and women in the interests of the dominant, male group. The myth of female victimhood is emphasized in order to keep women under control, so that they plan their activities, remain in view, tell where they are going, how they are getting there, when they will be home. The myth of female victimhood keeps women ‘off the streets’ and at home, in the place of most danger.

The atmosphere of threat that women feel surrounded by is mostly fraudulent. The sight of a man exposing his genitals causes fear; the man who exposes ‘himself’ is almost always rewarded by the sight of submissive behaviour as women passing by avert their eyes and hasten their steps. Submissive behaviour may be what such a man can exact by no other means. In the case of flashing, the proper response would seem to be hilarity and ridicule, to deny the flasher his kick. A middle-aged woman used to enjoy trotting around Cambridgeshire villages naked under an army great-coat. ‘What do you think of that then?’ she would say to surprised shoppers, as she held the coat open. ‘Very nice, dear,’ they would say. In [some] law women are deemed incapable of indecent exposure. A woman’s body signifies nothing; a man’s body, or rather the attachment to a man’s body, signifies power over life and death.

To complain to police is to reinforce the flasher’s belief in his penis’s magical power to amaze and appal. In truth the man standing with his pants down is extremely vulnerable, not least through the thin-skinned genitalia themselves.

The Whole Woman
The Anime Advantage

Anime is a particularly good medium for the body swap trope because of the following advantage:

When this plot is done in animation, usually the voices also switch as narrative cheat to help younger viewers keep track of who’s who.

TV Tropes

Though they don’t know each other, Mitsuha and Taki find themselves occasionally trading bodies, a mix-up that seems to have something to do with an approaching comet, though neither can quite figure out what. So they decide to make the most of it, and in the process find they’re improving each others’ lives. Mitsuha, in Taki’s body, is bolder with Miki, even setting up a date that Taki then nervously has to make good on. Taki takes more chances as Mitsuha than Mitsuha would ever take on her own. They leave notes for each other. They develop a rapport. They begin an odd, but oddly functional, relationship in which they never meet but know each other better than anyone else. And then Mitsuha disappears.

It’s here that Your Name transforms from a sweet, sort-of romantic comedy into an X-Files-ish mystery. It’s also at this point that the film becomes a little less compelling. After spending so much time on Mitsuha and Taki’s relationship, Shinkai’s film isn’t quite as assured when they’re on their own. Still, the emotions keep it moving, to say nothing of the visuals. Shinkai lets the drama play out against sumptuous landscapes — be it the hills around Itomori or the streets of Tokyo — unforgettable places he fills with passionate, searching characters haunted by a happiness that eludes them and a loneliness they’re not sure they can ever overcome — even if they suspect they have a soulmate chosen by the stars themselves. By the time Your Name reaches its moving finale, the Next Big Thing tag doesn’t seem quite enough for Shinkai. He’s arrived already.

Beyond The Multiplex

A RELATED STORYTELLING TRICK

Sometimes, there is no supernatural/fantasy body-swapping that takes place but rather a psychological one.

This technique can be seen in the following short stories:

  • Who’s-Dead McCarthy” — the narrator starts to become obsessed with death after lampooning an old man for being obsessed with same.
  • Sucker” by Carson McCullers — a teenage boy is rejected by a girl and in retaliation, rejects his younger cousin. This upends the psychologies of the characters completely.

RELATED TROPES

A similar idea, with less learning and more evil, is Grand Theft Me.

  • Personality Swap — the characters’ personalities are swapped but their minds stay where they are meant to be. It will often involve similar tropes to transformation stories (such as Gender Bender) as this is essentially two of these in one, with the addition of confusion resulting from the transformations being into other known characters.
  • Body Swap Stories, a Wikipedia list
  • Freaky Friday Body Switching Stories, a Goodreads list

SEE ALSO

Gender Inversion as Gags in Children’s Literature

I Know Your True Name Trope

Rumpelstiltskin Monro S. Orr

There’s a really old storytelling trope: A trickster girl — and it is usually a girl — overcomes an Opponent with word play rather than physical tousle. Oftentimes the ‘word play’ is simply guessing the opponent’s real name.

This post contains Breaking Bad spoilers. But hopefully you’ve already seen that if you wanted to.

The Importance Of Names

It’s common for characters on ego-trips to insist on usage of their name. One of my primary school principals insisted on being called “Miss Jones” at the end of every single sentence. If you slipped up and said “Yes” to one of her questions, she pulled you up and required you to say “Yes, Miss Jones.” She was a lot of fun. And probably military trained.

Miss Jones was my real-life 1980s example of “I’m the god damn Batman.” Getting your name all over the place is the ultimate power trip.

But in story, outsized ego often leads to your own downfall. This is because one’s name is a metonym for honour and reputation, more so in some cultures than in others. According to the mythology of Scotland, for instance, everyone came from the one ancestral clan, passed down through the male line. Even after marriage Scottish women traditionally keep their own names, but this isn’t for a feminist reason: names are so very important to one’s identity that you can’t get a new one simply by getting married. Women are accepted as demi-members of their husbands’ families — demi because they aren’t given his name.

In storytelling, to lose your name is one way of losing your identity. This is utilised by Hayao Miyazaki in Spirited Away when Chihiro becomes Sen when she starts working at the bathhouse. She will only get her name back after she proves her dedication to hard work as the salve to all of her problems.

There are other ways storytellers convey the idea that losing one’s identity is the worst. In Peter Pan and Wendy (and later in Hook) to grow up is to lose your identity. However, it’s interesting that the loss of name, or replacement of ‘real’ name with ‘nick name’ often happens in stories where your identity is more generally lost.

The I Know Your True Name Trope

You will see this trope across fairytales. The stand-out example: Rumpelstiltskin. When the princess discovers the goblin’s name she has won the Big Struggle.

In the classic Rumpelstiltskin plot, the princess hasn’t simply learned the goblin’s name: She has learned how mean he really is. She’s got the measure of him. The name stands for True Self.

When you’re really, really bad, the act of being known is in itself a destructive act. Ironically, the really, really bad character puts up the challenge: See if you can work out who I really am. Bet you can’t. I’m smarter than you, after all.

The trope can also be seen in myths from antiquity, such as the story of Lilith, who had a number of secret names. When Elijah learned her names — and also the nature of her evil — he had the upper hand.

The Say My Name Trope In Contemporary Storytelling

You’ll see the Say My Name trope in contemporary storytelling — not just in old fairytales.

It often goes hand in hand with shapeshifting: Once the hero(ine) says the opponent’s name, the opponent may change into something else.

SPLIT(2016)

Recently I watched Split (by M. Night Shyalaman) and noticed the initial Big Struggle scene was Rumpelstiltskin-esque. Spoiler (actually the film spoils itself — I have several issues with it, politically): the abducted surviving heroine finds a note from the baddy’s newly murdered psychologist instructing her to use the baddy’s real name in order to snap him out of his dissociative state.

Kevin Wendell Crumb!” she chants. “Kevin Wendell Crumb!” This sends the DID (dissociative identity disordered) opponent into a tailspin and precipitates a (long, drawn-out) big struggle between the forces of good and evil.

The baddie changes into The Beast. Shapeshifting.

Straight out of Rumpelstiltskin.

BREAKING BAD

“Say My Name” is the title of the seventh episode of Breaking Bad in its fifth season. So, Walter White is almost dead now.

The episode was originally titled something different, but the writers room must have intuited how great that quote is, and pulled it for the episode title.

“Say my name” refers to Walter’s demand for Declan to call him Heisenberg during their confrontation by urging him to “say my name”. Some viewers have called the Say My Name scene Walt’s ‘Icarus Moment’, when his ego is at its peak. (Icarus is more broadly about ego. I’m after a name more specific when referring to this trope.)

Walter White, like Rumpelstiltskin, is on a power trip. And like Rumpelstiltskin, he’s about to meet his maker. In many versions of the fairytale, Rumpelstiltskin dies after stomping in fire. (Nope, in fairytales stomping on fire does not put the fire out — it puts you out.) In Breaking Bad, Walter is also ‘put out’ in a blaze of fire (gun fire). So is Hank, his foil.

By the airing of the “Say My Name” episode, everyone (including me) was waiting with bated breath to find out how Breaking Bad was going to end. Only in hindsight, everything was right there for us, leading to exactly that ending. If I’d seen the Rumpelstiltskin connection, and how Walt was so insistent about people knowing and using his name, I’d have predicted his fate.

This is how writers make endings feel both surprising and inevitable. I wonder if even the writers made the Rumpelstiltskin connection, or if they were telling the story of Walter White at a deeply subconscious level.

(The Breaking Bad writers made use of many more fairytale tropes.)

For more examples, see the I Know Your True Name entry at TV Tropes.

Why is this trope so enduring?

Just guessing here, but maybe angry mothers have been calling children by their full-names literally since children EVEN HAD full names. When our mothers call us by our full names we don’t call that a trope, but in fiction it’s known as the Full Name Ultimatum. Full names are scary!

In her book From The Beast To The Blonde, Marina Warner has a more considered answer for us. First, she begins with by describing a main function of fairytales:

Fairy tales […] concern themselves with sexual distinctions, and with sexual transgression, with defining differences according to morals and mores. This interest forms part of the genre’s larger engagement with the marvellous, for the marvellous is understood to be impossible. The realms of wonder and impossibility converge, and fairy tales function to conjure the first in order to delineate the second: magic paradoxically defines normality. Hence the recurrence, in such stories, of metamorphoses, disguises and above all the impossible tasks—the adynata—of folk narrative.

Did you know what adynaton is, as literary technique? (Me neither.) Now we get examples:

These can take an active form: that the protagonist should fill a crippled pail with four-leaved clovers, as in Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s ‘Serpentin vert‘, or that the quester should come neither clothed nor naked, neither riding nor walking, neither bearing a gift nor not bearing one.

This is all part of a wider chapter about The Queen of Sheba, a character from the Bible.

This riddling demand, made in traditional tales in many different languages, was given to King Solomon and the Trickster Marcoulf in medieval texts, and to the poor peasant’s clever daughter in the Russian fairy tale, collected in the nineteenth century. Verbal riddles do not always invite performed solutions, but Sheba’s to Solomon do, and in her role in these stories she takes the place of the lowlife, cunning figure, like Marcolf, or the quick-witted peasant girl, as she tries to have the advantage over Solomon. This riddle is solved when the subject of the challenge rides on a goat (or a hare), with one shoe off and one shoe on, one leg on the ground, draped only in a net, and carrying a hare (or a quail) which springs to freedom as soon as he or she arrives.

The riddling story is found all over the place, Warner explains:

The riddles posed by Sheba relate to the matter and the manner of many fairy tales, which dramatise ‘witches’ duels‘: in these the heroine or hero confounds the powers of fairy evil by surpassing them in verbal adroitness, in tricksters.

The Devil is the ultimate trickster.

The Devil turns tricks, but those who elude him can outsmart him at his own game.

The Elfin-Knight is a famous Scottish ballad. (This trope seems especially popular in Scotland. The tale of Whuppity Stourie is the Scottish version of “Rumpelstiltskin”.)

In one of the highly popular ballad versions of ‘The Elfin-Knight’, for instance, a story which exists in different forms all over the world (the most famous being ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, hero of the Brothers Grimm’s popular tale of that name), the heroine wrestles with the Elfin-Knight, who would snatch her away to the underworld as his bride, by using her verbal wit against his power. The Devil who has come for her in marriage sets her ten riddling questions, and she replies staunchly to all of them. […]

This all relates back to a religious view of earlier times. People really did used to believe this, hence the entire concept of blasphemy:

Only God can remain the Unnameable: naming the Devil, knowing him for what he is, undoes his power.

See also: Symbolic Names in Storytelling

How To Describe A Woman In Fiction

Robert Payton Reid - Love's Messenger

How to describe woman and girl characters in fiction? There must be a handbook somewhere. (No, only the entire history of literature.) The following tropes are so common they can be found throughout stories over time, including in books for children. On the other hand, writers of children’s literature are also the most likely to invert established tropes. We see successful subversions from children’s authors.

DESCRIBE A WOMAN AS BIRD

The cellist’s practicing annoyed everybody, especially the girl living directly above her who was pregnant. The girl was very nervous and seemed to be having a hard time. Her face was meager above her swollen body, her little hands delicate as a sparrow’s claws. The way she had her hair skinned back tightly to her head made her look like a child.

Court in the West Eighties” by Carson McCullers
Nicoletta Ceccoli Bird girl
Illustration by Nicoletta Ceccoli

She was so little. Like a bird. And some days she looked like she was going to break. Or get shot out of the sky and fall down dead.

description of the mother in You May Already Be A Winner, MG novel by Ann Dee Ellis (2017)

She was a little woman, with brown, dull hair very elaborately arranged, and she had prominent blue eyes behind invisible pince-nez. Her face was long, like a sheep’s, but she gave no impression of foolishness, rather of extreme alertness; she had the quick movements of a bird. The most remarkable thing about her was her voice, high, metallic, and without inflection; it fell on the ear with a hard monotony, irritating to the nerves like the pitiless clamour of the pneumatic drill.

description of a Christian woman living in Samoa, “Rain” by W. Somerset Maugham

Vintage Russian Postcard, Blue Bird (Bird Sirin) Illustrated by Sergey Solomko (1867-1928) women and birds
Vintage Russian Postcard, Blue Bird (Bird Sirin) Illustrated by Sergey Solomko (1867-1928)

In contrast, Skellig by David Almond inverts gender tropes in several ways. His young male character brings food to and nurtures another male character. Males serving food anywhere in literature is hard to find, let alone to another male. The gender trope is also broken in that we have a male character described as a bird rather when it’s usually reserved for females. Less remarkable perhaps that the analogy is an owl. Of all the birds, owls are probably the most masculine, owing to their academic, learned, wise anthropomorphism. (In non Western cultures though, owls are connected to the night, the moon and therefore to femininity.)

In the 2017 MG novel Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi, Alice receives a dress which has a collar of feathers. This dress makes her feel like she can fly. The dress ‘made her miss the quiet moments she’d once resented, dancing alone in the forest, her heartbeats synchronised to the sounds of the world. This is connected to the more basic cultural idea that women are more connected to nature, owing to our bodily functions which seem gory and base, whereas men are closer to god. That is perhaps an exaggeration and oversimplification when talking about gender differences in modern societies, but historically it’s very accurate. In this book, the main character of Alice has an affinity to nature, and her transformation into a bird-like creature brings her even closer to the forest and the creatures who live within. See also: The Symbolism of Flight in Children’s Literature.

Taking a broader look at characters compared to birds in stories and it becomes clear that when any gender is compared to a bird, that character is vulnerable. If women are more commonly described as birds, that’s because women are more often portrayed as vulnerable.

Fly Me Home by Polly Ho-Yen (2017) is a magical realist middle grade novel in which two male characters are described as birds. The first is an elderly man with a childlike sensibility who can levitate. He may or may not be part of Leelu’s imagination. Eventually, Leelu goes on an urban journey to rescue her brother, who has been beaten up by bad people. This, too, is a gender inversion since historically it’s always the male gender saving the female gender.

[The older brother] lay unmoving, apart from one of his hands, which flickered with movement. His fingers flexed and trembled to their own rhythm; little flutterings that made me think of a bird’s wings beating in flight.

In Mad Men, Don Draper’s pet name for his first wife, Betty, if ‘Birdie’, which sounds a lot like ‘Bertie’ until you listen closely. This does play into a common heterosexual female desire, to feel much smaller than her male partner, and therefore protected. The problem for Betty is that she really is quite fragile and does need protecting from the world by a man.

Don Blanding, Peacock Girl, 1948

DESCRIBE A WOMAN AS A CAT

women cats describe

In stories for adults, women are birds except when they’re in bed, in which they morph into cats. Purring, mewling and so on. More common in certain genres than others.

What about in children’s literature, which for obvious reasons is absent the sex scenes? (Sex is replaced by food in children’s stories. True story.)

Sometimes the comparison between girl and cat is quite subtle. Do you ever hear boys described as ‘stalking’ away in a huff? Oh sure, there are plenty of actual male stalkers in literature, and quite often they’re rewarded for their predatory behaviour by ending up with the girl, but only girls ‘stalk’ away, which is a weird descriptor when you think about it. How did stalk come to mean two opposite behaviours? When cats stalk their prey, they’re going towards the object, not away from it.

Cass shoves the contents of her tray into the trash and stalks away. Even though she didn’t say it, it’s obvious I’m the reason she’s upset.

—  a lunchroom scene from The Peculiar Incident On Shady Street, MG horror by Lindsay Currie (2017). Notice that like pet cats, girls don’t show their feelings. We can tell exactly what they’re thinking from their body language. (Another dangerous ideology, but commonly underscored in fiction.)

Sometimes women are described as large cats. With irony noted, this article describes women as ‘savage’ in the title for daring to make fun of the way male authors describe female characters.

Carson McCullers, who describes a woman as a bird in “Court In The West Eighties”, subverts the gender trope by later describing a man as a cat: ‘He was dapper like a little cat — small, with a round oily face and large almond shaped eyes.’

WOMEN AS UGLY OLD HAG, YET STRANGELY DESIRABLE SOMEHOW

Iris Murdoch’s husband wrote a biography of his late wife after she died. He describes picking her up for their first date:

The door opened. An apparition in what seemed a sort of flame-coloured brocade stood before me. I felt in some way scandalised: dazzled but appalled at the same time. All my daydreams, my illusions and preconceptions about the woman — the girl? the lady? — of the bicycle seemed to have torn away and vanished back into a past which I would still very much have preferred to be inhabiting, given the choice. But I had no choice. The person before me was exactly the same as the one riding the bicycle. I still thought her face homely and kindly, not in any conventional sense pretty or attractive, even if it was a strong face in its own blunt-featured snub-nosed way; and for me it was always mysterious too. But now I was seeing it as other people saw it. Although it was in no way conventional itself its trappings, so to speak, were now conventional. Their appearance disappointed me sadly. They seemed the sort of things that any girl would wear; a silly girl who had not the taste to choose her clothes carefully.

However, gentleman that he says he was, John Bayley fell into bed with Iris later than night and told her in a very sexy way, I’m sure, how he loved her snub-nose.

Later, John Bayley also manages to describe his late wife as a bird:

At happy moments she seems to find [words] more easily than I do. Like the swallows when we lived in the country. Sitting on the telephone wire outside our bedroom window a row of swallows would converse animatedly with one another, always, it seemed signing off each burst of twittering speech with a word that sounded like ‘Weatherby’, a common call-sign delivered on a rising note. We used to call them ‘Weatherbys’. Now I tease her by saying ‘You’re just like a Weatherby, chattering away.’

and a cat, though he overturns the trope somewhat:

The Alzheimer face is neither tragic nor comic, as a face can appear in other forms of dementia: that would suggest humanity and emotion in their most distorted guise. The Alzheimer face indicates only an absence: it is a mask in the most literal sense. That is why the sudden appearance of a smile is so extraordinary. The lion face becomes the face of the Virgin Mary, tranquil in sculpture and painting with a gravity that gives such a smile its deepest meaning.

In any case, John Bayley’s real life use of the trope leads me to question the extent to which men sum up their female dates, balancing their conventional beauty against their inevitable sexual allure, against the social capital their beauty will bring to the man when he claims her for himself and will be judged by her beauty in public. Women worry about our own looks, wondering if we measure up. Men, apparently, also worry about women’s looks, wondering if we’ll measure up.

The most insidious, distasteful thing about men and male characters (proxy male authors) getting caught up in this psychological minefield around beauty standards is the idea that men should be congratulated for finding a non-model girlfriend sexually attractive regardless of her flaws, which are only flaws in his mind anyhow. Don’t nobody get no cookie for that.

A lot of white, male writers love this trope of the strangely alluring but scary woman. Ken Follett opens Pillars of the Earth with a mysterious young woman, who will soon jump our hero in the forest as he’s freshly grieving for the wife who Follett conveniently knocks off in childbirth:

She was a girl of about fifteen. When people looked at her they wondered why they had not noticed her before. She had long, dark brown hair, thick and rich, which came to a point in her wide forehead in what people called a devil’s peak. She had regular features and a sensual, full-lipped mouth. The old women noticed her thick waist and heavy breasts, concluded that she was pregnant, and guessed that the prisoner [about to be executed] was the father of her unborn child. But everyone else noticed nothing except her eyes. She might have been pretty, but she had deep-set, intense eyes of a startling golden colour, so luminous and penetrating that, when she looked at you, you felt she could see right into your heart, and you averted your eyes, scared that she would discover your secrets. She was dressed in rags, and tears streamed down her soft cheeks.

Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

Ken Follett is a big fan of the ugly woman who is nonetheless fuckable, even if she’s old:

She had been famous, once, briefly. At the peak of the hippie era she lived in the Haight-Ashbury nieghbourhood of San Francisco. Priest had not known her then—he had spent the late sixties making his first million dollars—but he had heard the stories. She had been a striking beauty. She had made a record, reciting poetry against a background of psychedelic music with a band called Raining Fresh Daisies. […] That was a long time ago. Now she was a few weeks from her fiftieth birthday. Her figure was still generous, though no longer like an hourglass: she weighed a hundred and eighty pounds. But she still exercised an extraordinary sexual magnetism. When she walked into a bar, all the men stared. / Even now, when she was worried and hot, there was a sexy flounce to the way she paced and turned beside the cheap old car, an invitation in the movement of her flesh beneath the thin cotton dress, and Priest felt the urge to grab her right there.

The Hammer of Eden, Ken Follett. First detailed description of a woman character in the story.

It’s the ‘but’ that gets me. You find a woman sexually attractive or you don’t. What’s with all the buts? Are we to congratulate our male hero for finding her attractive despite everything? Is this a perverse kind of Save the Cat moment? Jeez, I think I just made a terrible connection there.

WOMEN AS FOOD PRODUCTS

Women of colour will tell you how often they are described as food products, especially hot beverages. (Cocoa, coffee, mocha…) Or food in general, especially sweet ones (caramel, toffee, carob, biscuit, chocolate, honey).

To avoid:

Giving a character almond-shaped eyes or coffee-mocha-latte-chocolate-hazelnut-caramel-cappuccino-colored skin. In fact, as a general rule, writers seeking inspiration solely from Starbucks menus probably need to dial down the caffeine.

Sara Hockler

Yet we do still see this in modern children’s books, and I’d like to draw your attention to the gendered nature of it.

Nina’s huge eyes are focused on me now, like saucers of brown paint. If I had to classify them in pastel terms, I’d say they’re cocoa bean.

The Peculiar Incident On Shady Street by Lindsay Currie (2017)

Girls do look different from boys. Girls wear different clothes, different hair, move differently, and eventually there’s sexual dimorphism. But don’t default to a long history of tropes when describing girls and young women, because your story stands on the shoulders of every story which came before.

And that isn’t always a good thing.

Header painting: Robert Payton Reid – Love’s Messenger.

The Misplaced Importance Of Bloodline In Fiction

bloodline in fiction

A ‘chosen one’ story stars a main character who is basically ordinary, but because of their bloodline, they are destined for great things. Harry Potter is the iconic example of a contemporary chosen one story. Harry Potter comes after a long tradition.

At TV Tropes you’ll find that Chosen One stories are so popular there are various subcategories.

WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF BLOODLINE?

When we talk about blood we’re of course talking about genetics. We didn’t know this until recently, though scientists had a sense there was some kind of particle which passed traits on.

The 20th century gave us the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, but anyone who still thinks in those terms is making a folk distinction. Scientists working in genetics today don’t think in those terms at all because, basically, it’s all circular. We now know that environment influences gene expression. Now we know how little we actually know about genes. Sean Carroll describes our early thinking on DNA, once we had a name for it, then goes on to describe how much more complicated it is than that:

If you knew what the DNA was you could predict exactly what the organism was going to be, maybe what kind of food they would like or what kind of occupation they would have later in life. Today we know it’s a little bit more complicated than that. There’s more going on than just our DNA to make up who we are, not only nature versus nurture but even the nature part is very complicated. There’s epigenetics and development factors. There’s mitochondrial DNA. There’s the expression of the different parts of the genes that we have, and so we’re in a very, very rapid state of evolution, as it were, in terms of how we think in terms of how heredity works.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast with Carl Zimmer

Separately, I heard another geneticist talking in an interview. I don’t remember who it was or what they were talking about exactly, but one thing stuck in my mind: Geneticists, as a group, don’t tend to be all that interested in ancestry. You won’t find geneticists avidly researching their own family trees. They don’t hang out on the forums of Ancestry.com. That’s a separate interest altogether. Conversely, an interest in genetics seems to make you less interested in where you personally came from, partly because your greater understanding of genetics shows you that we’re all related in one giant web. It seems the story of our collective DNA is far more interesting than any individual’s bloodline.

Maybe we should all get PhDs in genetics and we’ll get some world peace?

FEATURES OF A CHOSEN ONE STORY

The bloodline plot often involves an orphaned character. (Or a character who thinks they are orphaned.) Orphans are super popular in children’s literature, especially in American children’s literature.

Especially in kids’ literature … there’s a trend towards unhappily adopted orphan heroes, as we’ll all know, who are lifted from the abuse/poverty/hilariously wonky living conditions they’re in by discovering that their parents were secretly wizards, or royalty, or holders of some great destiny that Our Hero is now tasked to take up. The truth of their bloodline saves the day, and you can dream of a giant busting through your door declaring “Yer a wizard” and scooping you off into the adventure you were destined for, away from your mundane and terrible home life.

The Afictionado

THE PROBLEMS WITH CHOSEN ONE STORIES

REASON ONE: CHOSEN ONE STORIES ARE UN-DEMOCRATIC

Here’s a spirited argument from Brent Hartinger:

I can’t STAND the whole idea of the “Chosen One” — someone who, usually by virtue of their family background, is destined for greatness. The prophecies all say so!

I’ve hated this trope as long as I’ve been alive. The Force runs strong in the Skywalker family? Harry Potter is a celebrity at the start of his story, destined to kill Voldemorte (or die trying)? Frodo must destroy the One Ring that his cousin/uncle brought back from his adventures, redeeming the family name?

Where does all this leave the rest of us? We’re supposed sit back and let the Chosen One complete his destiny? If we’re lucky, we might get to help?

Oh, goody.

This annoys me because it’s so clearly based on the idea of royalty: that some family lines are simply better than other ones. They’re chosen by God, or the gods, or Destiny itself. (Often, this is couched in the idea that this greatness is some kind of unbearable “burden,” one that must be kept hidden from the ignorant rabble, but that’s mostly just a bunch of bunk. From the point of view of all these stories, the main character is the “cool” kid, even if the actual cool kids can’t see it yet.)

But I believe to the core of my being that greatness is democratic: it’s damn hard, but it’s available to ALL of us.

Brent Hartinger, fantasy author

Bloodlines stories are rarely truly feminist stories. That’s because most stories, even those set in fantasy worlds, work on the principle of patrimony.

It’s the rare novel which subverts this, though some do. One of the earlier subversions happened in On Fortune’s Wheel by Cynthia Voight (1990). As Roberta Seelinger Trites describes:

While Birle [the main girl character] chafes against the narrowness of being female in this feudal society, Orien [her male love interest] questions the entire premise of the feudal society. Rejecting his patrimony, he bitterly tells Birle that knowing who one’s father is does not matter: “I know my fathers, for generations past”. He wonders why patrimony exists and why classes even exist, what gives one set of people the right to rule another, and why women are as disfranchised as they are.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

(Importantly, the story never switches to that of the boy character. He is only ever an accessory to the female character’s self-actualisation.)

REASON TWO: LAZY CHARACTERISATION

Characters of the chosen one archetype are hailed as the most important personin their setting for reasons that are entirely outside their control. The archetype is used to prop up bland characters who have done nothing to earn praise. Because these characters were born better than everyone else, they don’t have to practice or work hard to make a difference. In the Harry Potter series, Harry is worshiped because of what his mother did, while his hard-working friend Hermione sits in his shadow.

Mythcreants
REASON THREE: IN REAL LIFE IT’S NEVER JUST ONE PERSON SAVING THE DAY

Even when one person takes all the glory.

Because the chosen one is destined to change the course of history all on their own, the efforts of a larger community are quickly sidelined or forgotten. In A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance looks incompetent after Luke Skywalker swoops in and takes out an entire deathstar. And unlike many other chosen ones, he actually had some outside experience. By leaving the world-saving to one person, you’ll get a setting that is shallow and simplistic. No one makes history in a vacuum.

Mythcreants

In real life, there’s a human tendency to credit one person with doing all the work of saving the day, especially if that person happens to be a white man. (Compare responses to Chesley Sullenberger, who landed a plane safely ‘all on his own’ to many comments regarding Tammie Jo Shults, attempting to diffuse heroism to all the men in her arena.)

The following responses can be found on any comments section without scrolling far:

“Max Stone’s” element of truth is that many individuals are involved in a rescue operation. The difference is, our dominant cultural narrative gives sole credit only to men. This is how history books end up with far fewer female heroes.

Rather than continue to give sole credit to heroic, individual white men, we should treat male heroes as we currently treat female heroes.

This article from The Atlantic builds a good case: we expect too much of the President of the United States. The job itself has expanded over the decades. This may have something to do with all these (fictional) narratives in which one white dude saves the day, maybe? And now we think that’s how things should work?

BLOODLINE AND STAR WARS

I am not a Star Wars fan myself, but I would like to include a Twitter thread from someone who is. Star Wars is such a culturally significant story, and says a lot about what a ‘universal’ audience wants from blockbusters.

One of the MANY problems with overvaluing the bloodlines and legacy in Star Wars fandom: I’m a biracial woman of color. Blood purity and legacy when centered on white people has always been about white supremacy.

In worlds where that’s idealized people like me are exterminated. So having that very real inevitable outcome of imperialistic breeding be shown to be flawed and destructive, as well as intrinsically linked to a fascist regime that upholds oppression and exploitation of marginalized people is very validating.

As well as the damaging psychological toll that early indoctrination of children into any organisation, whether it is the Jedi order or the Stormtrooper program. I’m still very disappointed that I have not seen anyone draw parallels between Luke’s early training of Ben and Finn’s abduction into Stormtrooper training. Both of these men were fucked up by the previous generation’s pushing their political and religious aspersions onto kids. Much of the subtext, that I am most likely reading into, the new cast of characters is that this is a generation of war orphans.

Whether they had parents or not, each one of them has been deeply marked by galactic civil war. Poe is a child of the Rebellion, a second generation rebel fighter. That brings with it high expectations, familiar ties to the cause and a still very childish ideation of what he believes heroism is. Rey lives in a literal Emperial graveyard, survives on salvaging scraps from the past. Jakku is such a fantastic subtle marker of how broken the galaxy was left after the last war. It’s quite a contrast to the opulent splendor or Canto Bight. Finn’s a literal child soldier, taken by a war machine fed by wealthy imperialistic interests and political apathy. Rose is deeply marked by the fractured and corrupt galactic politics of this post war universe. Her childhood was stolen in much the same ways as Rey and Finn. Kylo Ren is the ultimate failure of the precious generations, but also the embodiment of generational trauma. Both in the actual abuse his mother suffered under his grandfather, the misguided choice to train him as a child, and the stain of overvalued bloodlines and “legacy”.

I don’t feel like this narrative is mocking of berating it for falling in love with the romantic notions of destiny and heroism. I feel it’s, if a bit sarcastically, redirecting us to what lies beneath these seemingly mystical and wondrous ways in which people change their world. It’s ALWAYS people. Not magic. Not powerful death machines. People shift the tides of war. People save each other. People do this because of love, friendship, family, and faith in a better future. To me this recaptures the magic of A New Hope, but more importantly our first experience of it. Where it was just about random people stumbling their way into friendship and saving the galaxy along the way. Just a farm boy, smuggler, and rebel princess. Anything was possible.

They won not because of magic or machinery. They won because Han Solo couldn’t abandon his new friends, showed up in the very last minute of the big struggle, kicked Vader in the dick, so Luke could blow up the Death Star. Luke didn’t defeat the Emperor using the Force. Anakin Skywalker decided he couldn’t let his son die for a reason. A father chose to save his son’s life. The Lightside of the Force is love and hope. The Darkside is hate, anger, and fear. These are not exclusive to one family, bloodline. Neither is the Force.

Fangirl Jeanne, twitter thread.

DOES THE WORK OF LEIGH BARDUGO SYMBOLISE A CULTURAL SHIFT IN STORYTELLING?

I have reason to believe The Chosen One story is falling out of fashion, but that’s mainly based on observing the career trajectory of Leigh Bardugo. Now, I read a lot of publishing blogs, listen to agent podcasts and whatnot and I’ve never heard any series recommended by publishing people as much as Six Of Crows. Agents love this series. Importantly to my theory: Six Of Crows is not Bardugo’s first fantasy series. What is it about this one that made it take off, and what made it take off at this cultural moment? Bear in mind, most children’s publishing people are lefties:

Six of Crows was radically different from the original trilogy. It had nothing to do with royalty or secret powers or chosen ones or any of the things that people still seem so hungry for—and to be clear, those are all tropes I’ve written and tropes I like, so I get the appeal. But I was in a place where I wanted to talk about characters who the world sees as expendable, not the ones with grand destinies.

Leigh Bardugo, talking with The Mary Sue about moving away from her also popular but not mega popular blood lines stories

IN DEFENCE OF THE BLOODLINE ARCHETYPE

It’s impossible to write about chosen one stories without mentioning Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s series is proof that many readers love chosen one narratives. It’s also worth pointing out, because it’s easy to forget, that Harry Potter is now 20 years old. In sociological terms, that’s more than an entire generation. But even in 2018, Harry Potter remains super popular with young readers. Harry Potter is as popular as it ever was. The biggest argument in favour of chosen one stories: Readers love them.

Readers have always loved them, so I’d be surprised if we see the end anytime soon.

Commenter Bruce Hahne points out that the ‘un-democratic’ work ethic implicit in the Chosen One criticism is borne by an equally problematic Protestant work ethic. Taken too far, that, too, can marginalise entire groups of people who are unable to contribute to GDP: Hahne also gives us a brief history of Chosen One stories in popular culture:

Rule out The Chosen One as an origin trope and you kill Green Lantern (all of them), Thor, Harry Potter, Captain Marvel (Billy Batson version), Buffy, and probably about half of Greek mythology.

God also disagrees with you:

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16-17)

No hard work and right choices there, he was just chosen.

Storytellers use The Chosen One because it works, it continues to work, and movies that use this origin trope well make money.

BLOODLINE STORIES: TIME FOR A MODERN RE-VISIONING?

Some bloodline stories are less problematic than others, or perhaps problematic in a slightly different way. Compare Harry Potter to Matilda:

An interesting case … is Roald Dahl’s Matilda, who off the bat has a lot in common with Harry Pottera young person in an obnoxious and abusive family who happens to have supernatural powers, both immediately relatable as heroes and providing the wish-fulfilment that we could magic ourselves out of horrible situations we’ve been raised in. Both end up leaving their toxic home environments and end up surrounded by people who love them. There’s a crucial difference between the two, though: Harry is saved by the reveal of his secret and much more appealing family lineage, and Matilda voluntarily leaves her biological family for better prospects.

Harry’s story is a much more common one: your life is terrible, orphan hero? Surprise, your real, but sadly dead and unable to help you, leading to you propelling the plot on your own, family were magical, giving you a portal to a better life you’ve been unknowingly destined for since the get go. This goes all the way back to Oliver Twist, the kicked-around workhouse boy discovered by chance by a rich old man who realises Oliver is his grandson. Happy endings ensue after plentiful struggle. This is a good narrative, and kind of so ingrained in our collective hearts that Matilda’s seems shocking in comparison: she left her blood relatives? But they were supposed to be where the hope was!

Matilda’s happy ending is being adopted, rather than the other way around. She finds someone kind and good, who knows her struggle, and together they rise up against the awful characters surrounding them and go off together to make their own family. Family is redefined as people who love, accept and protect you, and Matilda’s blood relatives are told, narrative-wise and literally, to go stuff themselves.

Afictionado

In other words, J.K. Rowling goes with the ideology that ‘your own family is best’, whereas Roald Dahl and his editor explore the possibility that some families are just terrible and you’re better off rid of them. This is still uncommon in children’s literature, but a surprisingly high proportion of adults are estranged from their natal families. This remains a cultural taboo.

One in 25 adult Australians will be estranged from their family at one point, but it’s a issue that’s rarely discussed openly.

SBS

Afictionado also points out that when we open our hearts to ‘found family’ stories (rather than ‘be loyal to your blood family at all costs’), this paves the way for a more diverse representation of family structure in fiction:

Matilda has a single adoptive mother. Lilo [from Lilo and Stitch] has her older sister, brother-in-law, extra-terrestrial best friend and two cross-dressing alien dads. Steven Universe has three (occasionally five) shapeshifting alien mums and a human dad who supports from the sidelines. Mako Mori has her adoptive father/teacher/saviour, drift companion and an entire army of international pilots and technicians who she’ll heroically protect.

Afictionado

FURTHER READING

“My Father Will Hear About This”: A Look at Magical Aristocracy from Afictionado