Liars In Storytelling

Charles Haigh Wood - Fair Deceivers

Liars are everywhere in stories. Stories themselves can be considered giant lies (which tell a deeper truth). The trope of the mask is a part of all this. Certain genres demand a ‘mask’, or, lying.

That’s because entire genres are about finding out the truth:

  1. Detective Crime is all about deciding whose version of a story is the truth. Our crime fighting heroes always care deeply about the truth.
  2. Mystery asks “How can we come to know the truth?” (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)
  3. Anti-Westerns critique the story given by classical Westerns and ask us to consider the truth about The Wild West (that it was a brutal, unjust, hellish place)
  4. In magical realism characters—especially the narrator—might not know what is happening any more than the reader, so they are discovering the truth of their reality as they go along.
  5. In a thriller, the perpetrator is known, but his guilt is not absolutely certain—or the hero wishes not to accept the truth of his guilt. (The uncertainty enhances the suspense.)
  6. Superhero stories are wish fulfilment fantasies in which everyone eventually ‘learns the wonderful truth about me’ (I am amazing when you unwrap my everyday clothes and put me in lycra).
  7. In many comedies a hero will be wearing some kind of ‘mask’ but eventually, after some sort of spiritual crisis, this mask will be ripped off and the other characters will learn who this hero really is.
  8. A parable illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes.
  9. Absurdist stories focus on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value
  10. Drama is often about the difference between a character’s public persona and what’s really going on underneath. We watch drama to learn about the lives we never find out about in our real-world acquaintances.
  11. Cinema in general

The cinema cannot show the truth, or reveal it, because the truth is not out there in the real world, waiting to be photographed. What the cinema can do is produce meanings and meanings can only be plotted, not in relation to some abstract yardstick or criterion of truth, but in relation to other meanings.

Movies and Methods: An Anthology Vol. 2
From 'Why Be a Goop A Primary School of Deportment and Taste for Children,' by author artist Gelett Burgess, 1924 Honesty
From ‘Why Be a Goop A Primary School of Deportment and Taste for Children,’ by author artist Gelett Burgess, 1924 Honesty

THE TRUTH DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FICTION AND REALITY

Fictional stories are make believe on the surface but true underneath. Real life, on the other hand, may be believable on the surface but is often unbelievable underneath. … In movies, screenplays and novels, we need to know the inner truths of the characters. Your characters’ actions in response to whatever incredible situation you’ve created must be reasonable, justified and believable.

Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website

The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.

G.C. Lightenberg

TRUTH AND STORY STRUCTURE

Within a story structure, the truth will be revealed at the ‘Self-Revelation‘ stage. (After the Battle, before New Situation.)

Sometimes the audience is let in on the truth of the situation at the beginning of a story. For instance, in some crime stories the reader knows who the villain is from the get-go. This type of detective story is no longer a whodunnit but a whydunnit.

TRUTH TROPES IN STORYTELLING

LIAR TROPE 1: NOBODY BELIEVES THE HERO

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The underdog hero must take matters into their own hands, saving the day somehow. Only by proving themselves truthful will be finally be accepted by their community.

This is basically the plot of every episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog. It works. Frankly, how quick would you be to trust someone who said there was a flying saucer in the field next door? This initial disbelief is almost mandatory — a type of lampshading for the audience who would otherwise think, “Now who would believe that?”

In 1965, Susan Sontag wrote five steps in one kind of typical science fiction story. Her first two steps demonstrate this lampshading:

  1. The arrival of the thing. (Emergence of the monsters, landing of the alien space-ship, etc.) This is usually witnessed, or suspected, by just one person, who is a young scientist on a field trip. Nobody, neither his neighbors nor his colleagues, will believe him for some time. The hero is not married, but has a sympathetic though also incredulous girlfriend.
  2. Confirmation of the hero’s report by a host of witnesses to a great act of destruction. (If the invaders are beings from another planet, a fruitless attempt to parley with them and get them to leave peacefully.) The local police are summoned to deal with the situation and massacred.

When it comes to heroines, however, writers often add a little extra. Like mental instability. The 2012 film Gone, stars Amanda Seyfried as a damaged young woman who takes on the role of a vigilante cop after the actual cops think she’s fabricated a former abduction from which she managed to escape. Even the movie poster announces that ‘no one believes her’.

teenage girls in narrative are often portrayed as liars

LIAR TROPE 2: HERO LIES TO THEMSELVES

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: Over the course of events the character is liberated by accepting the truth of their circumstances.

In Strays Like Us by Richard Peck, the main character has been abandoned by her mother — a drug addict criminal who will never step up to the plate for her adolescent daughter. Over the course of one year in a settled environment with a new female role model, Molly Moberly must come to terms with this. Finally she gives away the notebook she has been using to create a fictional narrative about her mother.

Jacqueline Wilson also writes of a girl lying to herself about her mother in Starring Tracy Beaker.

The mother of these orphan girls with imaginative narratives about their hopeless mothers is perhaps The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.

In Big Little Lies, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) lies to herself about the nature of her relationship with her husband. All of the supporting characters are keeping their own secrets.

LIAR TROPE 3: HERO LEARNS WHEN NOT TO LIE

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The main character has learned not to lie as a child but as she enters adolescence she realises the world is not black and white, so she learns when to keep quiet in order to protect someone else.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk is an excellent example of this storyline in a children’s book.

Another example, likewise a literary middle grade novel, is Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee. With her mother and little brother caught up in the story of the brother’s health issues, main character Lenny goes to visit a great aunt from her estranged father’s side of the family. She now faces a moral dilemma: To tell her mother and Davey or not?

But an entire great aunt. An entire person, all bony and angular and whiskery and filled with cackling laughter. All nylon stockings and strange orthotic shoes. All stories and sizzling bacon fat and radio violins. That secret was huge. Each time I looked at Davey, I knew I had to tell him, but each time I went to tell him, my thoughts clogged up. The secret sat on my tongue like a spoonful of peanut butter.

Karen Foxlee, Lenny’s Book of Everything

LIAR TROPE 4: FAKE ALLY LIES TO HERO

COMMON CHARACTER ARC: In children’s books it is often the adult lying to the child ‘in order to protect’ them.

In Strays Like Us even sympathetic adult Aunt Fay lies to Molly by omitting the fact that her mother has checked herself out of rehab and has gone AWOL. Because Peck wants to keep Aunt Fay as a sympathetic character, he has Aunt Fay apologise to Molly for not telling her earlier.

Also in school stories there will often be a ‘bitchy teen girl’ trope who is ‘nasty nice’. Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is well-known for introducing this dynamic to the public consciousness.

Eventually the hero works out what the truth of the situation is, and this contributes to their character arc. Or, like Lindsay Lohan’s character on Mean Girls, she might be a trickster archetype who lies back to her opponent in order to exact revenge.

LIAR TROPE 5: THE FAKE OPPONENT BENEFACTOR

It comes from Jane Austen:

The obvious liar in Pride and Prejudice is Wickham, but the more interesting from a plot perspective is Darcy. Because Darcy does something immensely noble, which if she knew about it would make Elizabeth deeply grateful to him, but doesn’t tell her. Lies about it. She only finds out indirectly. It’s a heart-stirring and deeply effective device, so much so that it has spread, meme-style, through countless other stories ever since. There’s a legend in Bookworld that when Helen Fielding was considering turning her Bridget Jones columns into a book, she saw the Colin Firth-starring TV adaptation and decided to lift the plot from Pride and Prejudice. Virtually every romantic novel ever since has done the same, including Twilight.

The Guardian

Secret-Keeping And Lies In Children’s Literature

Many books for children explore the ideas of truth, lies and secret-keeping. Young characters commonly keep secrets from adults. Often (especially in portal fantasy) it’s because the adults simply wouldn’t believe the children (that there’s a world on the other side of the wardrobe; that there’s a creature who grants wishes that last for a day). This is a ‘plot level’ secret, and serves to keep adults out of the story. That’s one of the main challenges for children’s authors — keeping adults from solving all the kids’ problems.

In other stories, secrets are thematically and didactically explored.

It’s an accepted fact in child development that humans are not born liars. We do not have the capacity to lie until we have developed theory of mind. Once we have learned to lie, we usually do it badly. Gradually, over the course of childhood, we learn that — even if the rule books say differently — lying is at times necessary. There is good lying and bad lying, or at least, lying that will get you into trouble and lying that will get you out of trouble.

This is complicated stuff. It’s no wonder so many of the great works of children’s literature touch upon it. Some stories are all about the lying.

A Few Case Studies

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

In Tom’s Midnight Garden Tom’s Aunt and Uncle tell him there is nothing in the yard except for a small area of pavement and some rubbish bins, so when Tom finds a vast, rich fantasy world after opening the back door at midnight, he is incensed that he was lied to. Tom already has a keen sense of right and wrong. When he has his Aunt and Uncle on about it, they have no idea what he’s talking about. When Tom shows them the other world it is no longer there.

In this way, Tom’s sense of reality, as well as his black and white sense of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, is challenged. Tom’s Aunt and Uncle aren’t lying, even though they can’t see the truth right in front of them, because that is just not their reality.

The Chronicles Of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

A similar event occurs in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, of course, when Lucy takes the other Pevensie children back to the wardrobe only to find the back has closed up. Lucy is heavily penalised for lying until it is proven otherwise. Edmond pays the greatest price for the greatest lie — knowing the world of Narnia exists without reporting the truth of it to Susan and Peter, redeeming Lucy in their eyes.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

The Dark Materials trilogy is all about shades of grey over black and white. She is smart and spirited and plucky and at times is a quick thinker but she is also naive and is still learning who to trust with the truth. Before she runs away from Mrs Coulter she is summoned by a man called Lord Boreal. He asks her questions.

“And is Mrs Coulter keeping you busy? What is she teaching you?”

Because Lyra was feeling rebellious and uneasy, she didn’t answer this patronizing question with the truth, or with one of her usual flights of fancy. Instead she said, “I’m learning about Rusakov Particles, and about the Oblation Board.”

The man presses her to tell him what she knows about that.

“Did Mrs Coulter show you a picture like [a photogram where you can see Dust]?”

Lyra hesitated, for this was not lying but something else, and she wasn’t practised at it.

As you can see, Pullman makes a distinction between run-of-the-mill lying and something deeper and unnamed — I’ll call it Preserving The Truth.

Lyra gets more worldly over the course of the story, as all main characters must in myth-structured stories. She naturally learns how to lie, sometimes to comic effect and sometimes because it is a matter of life and death.

After Lyra runs away she is approached by another suspicious man who tries to spike her coffee. To the delight of the reader, Lyra has already told the man that her name is “Alice” and that her father is “a murderer”.

“I told you, he’s a murderer. It’s his profession. He’s doing a job tonight. I got his clean clothes in here, ’cause he’s usually all covered in blood when he’s finished a job.”

“Ah! You’re joking.”

“I en’t.”

Further Examples of Secret-keeping In Children’s Stories

  1. Secrets are dangerous and should be shared with a trusted individual such as a parent, teacher or friend. This is a non-controversial message about secrets and a safe one to put in a book. No parent likes to think that their young child is keeping secrets from us. Parents are terrified of grooming and we no longer automatically trust teachers, coaches and bus-drivers. We like to think our children will tell us everything. Gatekeepers of children’s books therefore like books with this message.
  2. However, sometimes secrets are even more dangerous to share than to keep, and this danger can affect others as well as the secret-keeper.
  3. Even though it’s best to share your own secrets with friends, your friends‘ secrets should never be shared with others even if you feel you yourself need psychological support. Once you pass on a ‘secret’, it’s no longer a secret.
  4. Among groups of friends, secrets are swapped (even complete fabrications) as a mode of toxic bonding. Mean Girls features a Burn Book, for example, started by Regina George for two reasons: First it establishes a social hierarchy with herself at the top and second it bonds a small group of insiders together, using shared ‘knowledge’ as currency. People (mostly female characters) who use secrets and lies as social currency deserve every horrible thing that comes to them, and readers should never imitate this behaviour in real life. These stories exist to show readers that it happens, why it happens, and asks them to criticize the practice. There is also that wish-fulfilment of retribution in Mean Girls, when Regina George finds she’s met her match in the down-to-earth newcomer whose social gullibility turns out to be her strength. Machiavelli agreed that lies always hurt the teller, and Aesop agreed.
  5. Is lying by omission to help someone else a good secret or a bad secret? Not all secrets are the same. They come in different colours — black, white and grey. Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk does a good job of exploring this line of thought. The Case For Teaching Kids To Lie, Just Like Adults, from Fatherly.
  6. If you try to keep some horrible deed secret then get caught out, don’t deflect blame. Lying for your own gain and only your own gain means you deserve retribution. Pig The Fibber by Aaron Blabey is a humorous picture book example of this message.  
  7. If you have suicidal thoughts or have been abused then you should never, ever keep that secret. That’s the message of 13 Reasons Why. The TV adaptation comes with messages about the existence of Lifeline, a mental health helpline.
  8. Perhaps the most famous liar in children’s literature is Pinocchio, whose nose grows longer whenever he tells a lie. The image of a growing nose has entered the public consciousness and idiomatic language, regardless of whether we’ve ever read the story or not. The messages about lying are complex in this classic. Pinocchio is not the only liar. Gepetto sells his winter coat (which he needs) in order to buy Pinocchio a school book but he tells Pinocchio the coat was too hot anyway. Presumably this lie is okay, because it’s a ‘white lie’, designed to avoid a child feeling bad and help him in the noble goal of getting an education. For more on lying in Pinocchio, see here: “Lies that have short legs are those that carry you a little distance but cannot outrun the truth. The truthful consequences always catch up with someone who tells a lie with short legs. Lies that have long noses are those that are obvious to everyone except the person who told the lie, lies that make the liar look ridiculous.”
  9. While children should never lie to parents, if (good) parents lie if it’s to protect children. 
  10. Beware ‘tricky’ adults. An example of a nasty-nice stranger who reels a child in with lies is the White Witch, who reels him in with Turkish delight than tells him to keep a secret. The secret-keeping leads to Edmond being ostricised by his family when they find out he’s been lying about the existence of Narnia. The message in C.S. Lewis’s Christian works is that lying is always bad and will always be found out. We are often told that lies will always be outed. This stems from the monotheistic view of the omniscient eye watching our every move, reinforced by the idea that all our bad deeds will be judged upon our death. But not everyone holds these views. Do lies really always come out? Is there some law of ‘physics’ which makes that happen? Or perhaps this is far, far from reality — many secrets and lies die everyday around the world, along with the people who’ve been keeping them. And were they right to keep them?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Notion of The Living Truth

Bonhoeffer argues that it is naive and misleading, perhaps even dangerous to suppose that the literal truth always or even typically conveys what we mean when we talk about telling the truth. Of course we often tell a straightforward lie, and for morally blameworthy reasons. But we also often make statements that are not literally true—that are in fact literal lies—while conveying a deeper truth that an honest statement of the facts could not communicate. So, for example, if Geppetto told Pinocchio, “I sold my coat in order to buy you a schoolbook,” he would be speaking the literal truth, but his meaning might well be (or be understood by Pinocchio as) “Look what sacrifices I make for you!” By telling Pinocchio that he sold his coat because it was too hot—a lie—he communicates to Pinocchio something like “My coat doesn’t really matter to me, and your schoolbook does, and I don’t want you to feel bad about the fact that I sold my coat.” This is a very nice example of what Bonhoeffer means by the living truth, the more important meanings in communication that may not, and sometimes cannot, be conveyed by strict reportage. So many of the stories we tell our children are of this kind—Santa Claus is the obvious example—and we should ask ourselves, as parents and also as lovers: How many stories might my child, or my boyfriend, or my partner, or my mom be telling me, not in order to mislead me but rather to tell me something that, if said outright, might be misunderstood or cause me harm?

The New Yorker

Apart from Pinocchio, can you think of some children’s stories which play with the concept of ‘the living truth’?

At what age can (neurotypical) children understand this concept? For many autistic children, development is atypical when it comes to social lying. When you live with an autistic child you realise the extent to which everyday communication runs on secrets, lies, omissions and short-cuts as social niceties. Autistic readers in particular can benefit hugely from children’s literature which explores the full gamut of ideologies around secret-keeping and lying.

What does the field of psychology tell us about the toll of secret-keeping?

Traditionally, scientists have studied secrecy as a social act, as the wilful hiding of information from others. According to this view, it’s the suppression of the secret—the keeping it in, the self-monitoring, and the tactical contortions that go with it—that exact a cost on the keeper. But Slepian argues that secrets cause suffering in other ways, too. Yes, there are occasions when you have to actively steer a conversation away from the rocks, like when you’re attempting to disguise from your office mates the fact that you’re looking for another job. But most of the time you’re by yourself with your secret, thinking about the many ways in which it could be discovered or you might accidentally let it slip. […]

It is established that keeping a secret can take a toll:

Secrecy, as they see it, is less an activity than a state of being. We don’t keep secrets; we have them. And what’s harmful about a secret isn’t the content so much as the mind’s need to keep revisiting it and turning it over—not the murder itself but the incessant beating of the telltale heart. […]

However, if the secret-keeper is able to avoid ‘dwelling’ on it — if the secret isn’t actually bothering them — well, no problem? We shouldn’t assume that keeping secrets is always going to be harmful for the keeper. It depends on the secret and on the person:

By a margin of two-to-one or more, people dwelled on their secrets on their own time far more than in social situations. And the dwelling, more than the concealing, hurt their sense of well-being. By constantly chewing over a secret, Slepian suggested, people remind themselves of their own deceptiveness; they feel “inauthentic, disingenuous.” […]

Other people, or the same people in different situations, might be better off sharing secrets to avoid letting it harm their sense of integrity. This may apply in particular to sharing with others who we really are. For example, living one’s whole life concealing sexual orientation/identity is going to take a very real emotional toll on a person:

Secrets are largely solitary creatures and can be tamed with company. “Talking about it with another person will really go a long way,” he said. Melissa Ferguson, the Cornell psychologist who studied the cognitive and physical effects of concealing one’s sexual orientation, added that we shouldn’t lose sight of the costs of social secrets.

The New Yorker 

On the other hand, for many young gay and transgender people around the world, coming out to their families and communities is more physically dangerous than the secret-keeping is emotionally dangerous. In which case, what is the answer for those readers looking for similar lives within books? Dan Savage, well-known gay sex columnist, often advises young people from bigoted communities be very careful about coming out, as it can lead to loss of educational opportunities, homelessness and physical harm. The time for coming out can occasionally be postponed a few years.

Alongside all those stories about unburdening, stories about secret-keeping — at least for a while — are also needed.

FURTHER READING ON LIARS AND LYING

1. The Tech of TV News Might Make It Easier for Pundits to Lie

2. Valuing Those Who Tell You The Bitter Truth

3. Amanda Knox: What’s in a face? from The Guardian

4. How To Be More Paranoid from The Hairpin, in which Pamela Meyer tells you how to spot liars.

5. Twelve Completely Foolproof And Not-At-All-Crazy Ways To Make Sure He’s Not Lying from Jezebel: Relationships

6. On Bullshit by Henry Frankfurt

7. How And Why Do We Deceive Ourselves from Freethought Blogs

8. Do People Really Want You To Be Honest? from HBR

9. Why We Don’t Always Tell The Truth, also from HBR

10. 12 Lies To Stop Telling Yourself from Marc And Angel Hack Life

11. Trust Me I’m Lying, interview with Ryan Holiday, who wrote a book about the media and ‘faux-troversies’.

12. Anatomy Of Lying, a book by Sam Harris

13. The ‘Pinnochio Effect’ Confirmed from Science Daily

14. Lying Is Common Age 2, Becomes Norm By 3, from BPS Research Digest

15. How Money Makes You Lie And Cheat from Time

16. Suppression of Incriminating Memories Can Beat Lie-Detector Tests. (I’ve always wondered that.) from Psych Central

17. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves from Farnam Street

18. 10 Lies You Were Tricked Into Believing from Marc and Angel

19. The Lie Detector Paradox from Mindhacks

20. Dan Ariely on the Truth About Dishonesty, Animated from Brainpickings

21. Jeff Hancock and the Future of Lying from GMP

22. How can we make people more honest? a video.

23. How we teach our kids that women are liars, from Role Reboot. (And then I read this unrelated passage in a popular science book: Human females, unlike most of their primate relatives, do not tell the truth about when they are fertile. Female chimpanzees flaunt swollen backsides and genitals for the several days in each cycle when an egg is ready to be fertilised… Women, unlike chimpanzees, advertise their potential for copulation at all times, fertile or otherwise. Perhaps a false statement of fecundity means that a male will choose to stick with a particular mate in order to keep others at bay, rather than tomake a switch to a third party while his partner is unable to conceive.’ -page 151-152 of The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones. #CasualSexism

When people say “believe women” a lot of them really mean “believe women until they try to unmask someone I like.”

The Profane Feminist (@ProfaneFeminist) November 22, 2019

There are many songs dedicated to the idea that women are (sexy) liars.

24. Intricacies of Lying: False Descriptions Easier to Remember Than False Denials from Science Daily

She stabbed the butter lightly before spreading it on a scrap of French bread — ‘why, when I first met you and you told me about yourself, did your story end when you left your wife and went and lived in a flat somewhere? Why was that the end of the story when it wasn’t the end at all?’

‘How do you mean?’ He had stopped eating, though, she noticed that. ‘I did go and live in a flat when I left my wife.’

‘Indeed you did. But there was more to it, wasn’t there? You left your wife and you went and lived in a flat. Then you met someone else and got married again and went and lived in a large house somewhere else entirely.’

‘Oh that,’ he said. ‘Well, perhaps we got interrupted at that point. Perhaps I just forgot to tell you the rest and you never asked.’

from The Lonely Margins Of The Sea by Shonagh Koea

25. Here’s What You Need To Know About Liars from Business Insider talks about two different kinds of liars: polite, everyday liars and ‘prolific’ liars. Given the dominant cultural narrative about how women lie (about being raped, about liking computer games, about liking sex etc.), I’d like to point out that men are statistically more likely to be prolific liars.

26. I love children who lie for no reason, by Elena Ferrante

Header painting: Charles Haigh Wood – Fair Deceivers

Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review

STORY WORLD OF STRAYS LIKE US

Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.

This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:

“How did the guys find out anyway?”

“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”

Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an snail under the leaf setting. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:

“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”

The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.

Strays Like Us tree cover
Molly Moberly in the foreground with neighbour Will in the background.

The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here.

The 1990s was the era of peak fear when it came to AIDS. We heard about it a lot — it was feared in the West unlike anything else, mostly associated with gay sex and illegal drug use and therefore highly stigmatised. Young readers today probably haven’t encountered that attitude in their own milieu, as AIDS has largely left public consciousness in the West, replaced by other fears such as the odd ebola outbreak, or mosquito borne encephalitis.

More clear than the exact year of the setting is the month of each incident. The reader is grounded in time with consistent reference to the month, the holiday event (be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or the beginning of the school year/start of a new one) and the season (whether Molly can hear bees or not and so on). Reference to season is more common in stories for and starring girls.

Spring came in a hurry here, before I knew it. The wind softened, and I felt the year revolving under my feet. Bare branches began to bud, and I remembered the heavy green shade of the trees, last summer when I’d come.

Nature also tends to be important in feminine stories, connected inextricably to the seasons in most ‘storybook’ parts of the world. Richard Peck manages to convey the ‘apparentness’ of this snail under the leaf setting by adding ‘fake grass’:

We stood in a little know beside a patch of fake grass where the casket rested. There weren’t any flowers. Mrs McKinney and Aunt Fay looked smaller than they were, hunched in their winter coats.

Richard Peck also uses a technique which makes any social situation more interesting — he abuts rich and poor people together, linking them inextricably. Molly herself is genetically related to a rich woman, but her whole life she’s lived in poverty. This is a version of a Cinderella rags-to-riches tale. Mrs Voorhees, bed-ridden and hypochondriac despite having married into riches after her first husband died in the grain elevator, shows that money can’t buy happiness — the modern take on the rags-to-riches story.

REVEALS IN THE NARRATIVE OF STRAYS LIKE US

Contains spoilers, of course.

Strays Like Us is a masterclass in drip-feeding information. In a quiet story like this one, these reveals provide the necessary reasons to keep reading.

  • Molly’s mother is a drug addict
  • Who is in hospital
  • And who has checked herself out back in October even though it is now Christmas
  • Will’s father is not in prison after all, he’s cooped up inside Will’s house with pneumonia
  • Which turns out to be AIDS
  • The homeschooled girl Molly meets at the library seems to have the perfect family situation but engages in criminal behaviour when she sets fire to the school
  • And is badly burned
  • In chapter 14, the wealthy, lonely woman Molly visits turns out to be her grandmother
  • Chapter 14 also gives readers and Molly the true extent of her mother’s terribleness. She is trying to use her status as a ‘mother’ to prevent a stint in jail for dealing in dope.

These reveals are in most cases based on lies told to other people, half-truths told to save feelings and stories told to comfort oneself. A lot of middle grade stories ask readers to consider the function of lies versus truth, and this is a good example.

The revelation that Will really does have a father turns out to be a bit of a ‘reversal’ so far as Molly’s concerned. She thought she was like him, but now she realises she’s alone in her predicament. This is possibly the worst thing that Molly can hear right now, just as it’s clear her own mother is not on her way to collect her and in fact has gone AWOL. This is how Richard Peck puts his main character through her paces, doing the worst to her but within the confines of a safe environment.

 STORY STRUCTURE OF STRAYS LIKE US

NARRATION AND VIEWPOINT OF STRAYS LIKE US

Written in first person, Molly Moberly looks back to an earlier time in her life. At the time of ‘writing’, she is older and wiser. We are constantly reminded that this is written by an older person looking back. As a narrator, the older Molly is able to hint at differences between what is ‘true’ and what is ‘perceived’ by herself at the time. She is also able to tantalisingly foreshadow the reveals by telling the reader that there are secrets about this snail under the leaf setting waiting to be uncovered.

Will wouldn’t have to pay because of what happened to his dad. That’s what I thought because that’s what I wanted to think.

 

The Kirkus reviewer describes this form of narration as ‘abrupt and somewhat detached’ and also ‘wistful’ and ‘ingenuous’, showing that when it comes to picking your narrative technique, you simply cannot please everyone. However, Kirkus does admit that the narration ‘gains strength’ as the story progresses.

What do you think?

SHORTCOMING

I’ve done no study on this, but it feels like alliterative names are more common in children’s literature, as well as in light-hearted genre fiction for adults. Molly Moberly, Missouri. This story has dark themes and Molly’s alliterative name — in a very small way — helps remind us somehow that this is a children’s story. Molly’s isn’t the only alliterative name; we also have Brandi Braithwaite and Rocky Roberts.

PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS

Molly Moberly has a ‘ghost’ which is revealed to the reader in drips and drabs but quite early on. She has been sent to a new foster home in yet another town because her drug-addicted mother is unable to care for her. Molly needs to find a parental figure. She also needs to let go of her biological mother ever fulfilling that role for her.

MORAL WEAKNESS

Because Molly is scared of rejection, she is disinclined to make friends, ostensibly because she figures she won’t be sticking around long enough to bother making any. When Will from next door introduces himself she treats him badly by rejecting his offer of friendship and hoping he’ll roll off the roof.

DESIRE

Molly has no wish other than to keep her head down, out of trouble, with her new life on hold waiting for her mother to come and get her.

More deeply, she wishes for stability and family.

OPPONENTS AND ALLIES

Will McKinney is a fake-opponent ally. He is in a similar situation to Molly — with precarious family circumstances and a lot going on.

Other opponents are well-meaning, as opponents often can be. Mrs Pringle, the well-meaning full-time mother who gives Molly a pile of clothes is trying to help, but ends up potentially damaging Molly’s sense of self-sufficiency by treating her as a charity case.

Aunt Fay is a true ally, understanding Molly’s emotional needs and giving good advice. Aunt Fay is the motherly figure Molly needs. Aunt Fay is well-developed as a character. When Will’s father dies we are given the hint of an existential crisis when she looks away out her side window at the tombstones and laments her own capacity for keeping the man alive or being able to keep him comfortable.

The cast of demented and sick people in Aunt Fay’s life make for a cast of eccentric and crotchety characters, alternately grateful and annoyed by Molly’s existence. These characters are not fleshed out — we don’t get to know their motivations. They function mostly as thumbnail sketches within Molly’s journey.

Rocky Roberts is a misunderstood villain. Like the disfigured man in Wolf Hollow, he is the handy scapegoat for bad things that happen in this small town.

Nelson Washburn stands for people who cast judgment over others without scrutinising the facts. Brandi Braithwaite, a caricature of a snarky adolescent girl, goes one step further and full-on makes up a story about seeing Rocky Roberts with a can of petrol on the night of the arson. These characters are opponents of ‘the truth’, which is what Aunt Fay stands for, and what her great niece Molly strives towards.

PLAN

In a post-Pollyanna kind of way, Molly learns to care for herself by first caring for others, looking outside her own situation to see that others have their own problems, even when it appears they are living in a kind of utopia. This is Aunt Fay’s plan, no doubt, rather than Molly’s own idea. But usually in these stories, where a ‘plan’ has been foisted upon them by someone else, about halfway through the main character will switch from being extrinsically to intrinsically motivated. When Molly plays cards with Mrs Voorhees we know she’s switched her mindset. Nobody told her she had to do it — she sees Aunt Fay caring for others and takes her lead.

BIG STRUGGLE

Aunt Fay models a necessary but uncomfortable confrontation about boundaries by having it out with hypochondriac Edith Voorhees who is sapping too much of her time and emotional energy. This marks the beginning of Molly’s anagnorisis — that things are always in flux:

Why couldn’t [Aunt Fay] go back to being the way she’d been, getting sassed by Mrs. Voorhees and sassing her back? Why did things have to keep changing, even here?

Next, Aunt Fay has another uncomfortable conversation with the coach when he brings in an injured Will, in a town where people are worried about the blood of the son of the man who just died from AIDS.

“Then talk plain. I do.”

In this way, Aunt Fay is modelling the telling of truth.

Next it’s Molly’s turn to have a big struggle of her own. Chapter 13 (a symbolic number?) describes the conflagration at the high school. This is the outer ‘big struggle’ which symbolises Molly’s internal growth. At the beginning of this chapter she is still keeping her ‘Debbie notebook around’ — though she’s only using the blank pages to keep notes about school, not to write fiction about her mother. The pace quickens as Aunt Fay is challenged with the task of getting Tracy Pringle’s mother to call the ambulance, with the ticking-clock of a badly burned child. Waiting downstairs, Molly realises that this big house is ‘too empty’. It dawns on her that Tracy doesn’t have a father (and that she is therefore not the only ‘stray’). The Pringles’ house appeared at first glance to be a warm house but is in fact cold and unwelcoming.

ANAGNORISIS

This is a story about found family, popular in middle grade stories. The message is, “You need to start finding your own people, because those you got lumped with by circumstance aren’t necessarily the best people for you.”

Strays Like Us makes use of the ‘Magical Age Of 12′ principle, in which Molly Moberly is 12 at the beginning of the story, turns 13 partway through it, and this maps exactly with her character arc from ‘naively hopeful’ to ‘realistic and rational’. In tandem, Will goes through the masculine version of coming-of-age, growing tall with a thicker neck and bigger muscles, especially after he loses his father and his grandfather mistakes him for father.

NEW SITUATION

If you do not have a happy ending for the young, you had better do some fast talking.

— Richard Peck

The story ends when Molly is 13 and a half. She’s growing out of childhood pastimes that require getting her hands dirty. The story has followed the course of one full year and the final scene places Molly back up the leafy tree from the opening scene, creating circularity and the sense of an ending.

Something’s happened to summer. It melted away before we knew it.

Summer is of course a metaphor for childhood. The seasonal emphasis in this story has marked Molly’s trials in her journey from childhood to adolescent.

Molly gives the social worker her precious Debbie notebook, no longer precious. She wants Debbie to have it if it gets to her, which is the outer reason for her getting rid of it, but at a psychological level she is letting go of the idea that her birth mother will ever be her real mother.

It is rare to find an out-and-out evil mother in children’s literature, though this one comes close at one point. Peck doesn’t break the final taboo — that in which a child really doesn’t feel anything at all for her mother:

I loved my mother, and she loved me. She loved me like a rag doll you drag around and then leave out in the rain. I still love her, but I live here.

This middle grade novel offers no neat solution to the social issues presented. This may or may not feel satisfying, depending on what the reader needs from a novel:

The novel settles upon a host of difficult issues and then, indescribably, lets them go: When Will sustains a bloody injury while playing ball, the coach requests that he quit the team because other members are afraid of contracting HIV. Instead of countering this ignorance, Will retreats, and the issue is dropped, with only a few utterances of protest from Aunt Fay. The novel becomes something of a treatise about a generation of children who have been cast aside by their parents; with its compelling premises and Molly’s fragile but tautly convincing voice, it will be seized upon by Peck’s fans, but may leave them longing for more.

Kirkus

Desperate Housewives Storytelling Tips

Desperate Housewives ran for eight seasons from 2004 to 2012. This show is a great example of a ‘cozy mystery’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAbKBUJ4NRY

TAGLINES

Taglines are for the marketing copy. 

Season One: Everyone has a little dirty laundry…/Secrets. Romance. Murder. All On One Street.

THE LOGLINE/PREMISE

For maximum narrative drive the premise should be all about the plot. A premise that works will contain some sort of contrast.

“Secrets and truths unfold through the lives of female friends in one suburban neighborhood, after the mysterious suicide of a neighbor.”

The contrast in this logline is that ‘friends’ have ‘secrets‘ in the ‘suburbs’, an arena we generally associate with ‘knowing everybody’s business’ and ‘nothing interesting ever happens’.

GENRE BLEND OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

drama, mystery, satire

When Desperate Housewives first aired in 2004 it was the tone which drew me in. I hadn’t seen anything with quite that balance of 1950s housewife satire, comedy and mystery. It’s easy to forget that now because we’ve since seen a number of TV dramas with a similar vibe:

The women on this show aren’t real women — nothing like it. An excellent example of the ‘unreality’ of the characters can be heard in the audio commentary to episode 15, season one. Marc Cherry is especially proud of his writing of this episode (and it was the first time they shifted to their new, more expansive set), so he guides DVD owners through the episode they called Impossible.  In this one, John’s roommate Justin blackmails Gabrielle into having sex with him by becoming their new gardener. Gabrielle turns the gardener down, both for sex and for free garden work with obvious strings attached, but her husband lets him in and he surprises her while she’s in her own bathroom upstairs. The male writer and producer tell us on the audio commentary that actress Eva Longoria did an excellent job of ‘taking control of the situation’ but was ‘rooted to the spot’ for the first few takes, terrified at the prospect of finding a well-muscled young man confronting her for sex in her own space. The scene is meant to be played as comedy. Longoria’s acting made it somewhere there, but I did watch this episode the first time thinking that it’s not good comedy material, and a ‘real woman’ would not react with Gabrielle’s bravado — not with genuine bravado — in that particular situation. From my perspective, the male writer on this occasion simply did not understand how terrifying this scenario would be for a woman, and seemed a bit mystified about why Eva Longoria had trouble acting her part in it.

The men are archetypes, too. Even the children are preternaturally scheming/mature/creepy, harking back to a time before the concept of childhood existed. In this ways and many others, Desperate Housewives is a series of fairytales.

The show was originally pitched with ‘comedy’ in its genre blend but none of the networks were interested. When it was re-pitched as ‘satire’ suddenly it found a home. Networks had assumed it was just another soap. But they realised the audience was ready for a ‘self-aware’ version of the daytime soap, and changing the genre from ‘comedy’ to ‘satire’ did the trick.

OTHER SHOWS SIMILAR TO DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

Suburgatory is another show aimed at teens using the suburbs as a horror arena, though it is heavier on the comedy.

Desperate Housewives was created by Marc Cherry, who had already achieved huge success with Golden Girls (1985). You may or may not already know that he then went on to create a show called Devious Maids (2013). Cherry apparently came up with the idea one day when watching the news with his mother. They were watching a clip about a mother of five who drowned them all one day. Cherry said, “Who could do something like that to her own kids?” and was surprised to hear the response from his own mother, “Oh, I’ve been there.”

Devious Maids, by the way, looks similar but with an Upstairs, Downstairs flip. I’m not sure if the Cherry-Lifetime collaboration achieved a Desperate Housewives vibe, and its cancellation suggests they didn’t, but judging by the intro sequence, it seems that’s what they were aiming to reproduce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxUeTGf4NiU

The Black Widows has been marketed here in Australia as the Nordic Desperate Housewives. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-bVA5kuu8I

But in my opinion nothing has come close to Desperate Housewives, yet. Love it or hate it, it does what it does really well. The following is a close look at Season One.

Pretty Little Liars for one was pitched as ‘Desperate Housewives For Teens’. Like Desperate Housewives, there is a cast of four distinct female archetypes who are friends. There is also a slight supernatural overtone to the story, with a dead person pulling strings/narrating omnisciently.

are friends by virtue of them having been positioned in close proximity to each other. Each of the women is nothing alike. Instead, each stands for a different ‘virtue’:

  • Aria = artsy
  • Spencer = clever girl
  • Hanna = It Girl
  • Emily = sporty girl

The marketing machine behind The Spice Girls also knew what a great formula this is. The audience has a ready-made story for each girl, and we don’t require much information to get us started.

Though we also see this dynamic in stories for adults, it is common in children’s literature to find that ‘the’ main character is in fact made up of a group, and each in the group makes up a different potential facet in a child reader. We see it in series such as Winnie-the-Pooh to the Famous Five.

In Ann Brasheres’ The Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants we even have the narrator explain that each one of the four main characters is completely different — it’s as if we make up different parts of the one person. So, yeah. Just like Winnie the Pooh.

Desperate Housewives also makes use of the Dead Girl Trope. Being a parody, does Desperate Housewives subvert it, or reinforce it? This can be argued both ways.

Something I’m wrestling with right now is whether subverting the Dead Girl trope is the way to go, or should we be trying to push back against that kind of mode of storytelling and not make everything a mystery that can be solved? I think there are Dead Girl shows that do subvert a lot of tropes. Pretty Little Liars and a lot of really silly teen shows like Riverdale, in [their] pulpy-ness and how over the top they go and how many rules they break, do in some ways undermine the rules of the Dead Girl show. They make it so they’re not really solving any problems, they’re not coming into any existential answer. They’re just winding their way through this maze that’s been created by violence and misogyny. It’s more like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland than Sherlock Holmes.

Alice Bolin

STORYWORLD OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

How to describe the vibe? This Nancy Drew cover seems to epitomise the inspiration. Many in the target audience will have grown up reading such books — groups of nice girls wearing sensible, pretty clothing, surrounded by mystery and light horror. Everything is not how it appears.

Desperate Housewives has a fairytale vibe, and because fairytales have been read by children since the era of the Grimms, fairytales put an audience in mind of storybooks for children. There is plenty Desperate Housewives shares in common with children’s books:

  • The utopian facade, though in a children’s book the utopia is often a genuine idyll. Desperate Housewives is filmed on a set, not on a real street so absolutely everything we see on Wisteria Lane is ‘fake’, as well as carefully planted there. The creators describe Wisteria Lane as ‘hyper-real’.
  • The calm, all-knowing narrator, explaining truisms to the audience in a soothing, before-bed kind of way
  • The structure of the stories, which are bookended in a way many children’s books are, as well as smaller things such as switching from iterative to singulative time.
  • Though it’s not a strictly followed rule, episodes tend to open in the morning and are drawing to a close once we start to see conversations at bedtime, even if the episode itself spans several days. Many picture books work on a 12 hour clock, starting with the child getting out of bed, ending with them back in bed and ready for sleep.

Suburbia makes an excellent horror arena. The more perfect the lawns, the more things are rotten beneath. Audiences have learnt to expect that.

A great part of our day in the writers’ room is spent saying, ‘We’ve done that…’ We did towards the end start to think, ‘Are there any natural disasters left? We’re not really in the right climate for volcanoes and floods.’ […] Faced with the challenge of volume Desperate Housewives found itself, like many, grasping for sensation. The annual ‘disaster’ episode became a ritual and over eight seasons a tornado, a fire, a plane crash and a riot all hit Wisteria Lane.

Bob Daily, Executive Producer

Which brings me to Biblical allusions, because whether intended or not, these massive disasters are reminiscent of the deadly plagues of Egypt.

BIBLICAL ALLUSIONS IN DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

It becomes clear as the seasons progress that the series is an exploration of the seven sins, though it should be obvious from the start that the apple is symbolic. This is Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden. Eden, of course, is the perfect suburbs, and if these women were not each plagued by her own fatal flaw, Wisteria Lane really would be an idyll.

AD/HD DRUGS = THE POTIONS FROM A FAIRYTALE

Lynette’s storyline focuses quite a lot on the politics of AD/HD, drug abuse and education in America. The real world background to this plot line is that during the 1990s there was a lot of scaremongering in the media about the dangers of AD/HD medications for children. This came almost entirely from a single religious group. You can probably guess which one. Yes, it was Scientology. But like the vaccination ‘debate’, the debate over the ethics and safety of stimulants for children gained much coverage and scared a lot of people. If a child genuinely has an AD/HD neurology, there is a 95% chance that child will be helped by taking the right drugs. The literature doesn’t give such a high statistic because there are also children who are medicated who do not have a genuine AD/HD profile. (I get that stat from my wonderful AD/HD daughter’s pediatrician.)

At the time Season One of Desperate Housewives was written, the creators were cashing in on the scaremongering of the Church of Scientology. The audience doesn’t need any real reason for Lynette to just decide not to medicate her boys. We all know why she doesn’t because we’ve all seen the same media. If it weren’t for the realworld scare campaign, audiences would see no good reason for Lynette not to medicate her children. Of all the drugs given to children, AD/HD medication is the most heavily researched. It is an old drug, and several generations of children have been lucky enough to benefit so far. Giving AD/HD medication to a child with AD/HD is similar to giving a child glasses, and the effect is just as stark. AD/HD does not make a creative child less creative, turning him/her into a type of zonked out zombie; it allows naturally exuberant and creative AD/HD children to focus for long enough to put that creativity to good use. However, when we see Lynette tire out her boys by having them dig a massive hole, we see them subdued and lifeless for their observation visit to the fancy private school and we get a strong hint of what medication is meant to do to them.

Desperate Housewives has not been helpful in the fight to get kids who need drugs properly medicated. For instance, the writers make no distinction between ADHD and ADD, which are two separate neurologies. The dialogue between Lynette and the Ritalin-popping supermom does accurately convey that if an adult without AD/HD takes the drugs it’s like drinking an entire pot of Turkish coffee.

The public school teacher who threatens to kick the twins out of the entire public school system exemplifies how many assume teachers approach a parent whose children are short on executive functioning, though this character is good for drama. The boys themselves seem not just like children with AD/HD, but actively scheming and mischievous, whispering to each other in the back of their mother’s car. Generally, children with genuine AD/HD are trying their hardest to be compliant. The writers are doing one of two things: Either they’re suggesting AD/HD are true horrors, or they are showing us that Lynette is an ineffective parent whose six-year-old boys already see her as the opponent.

As the season progresses, the fairytale element of the Ritalin becomes clear. Lynette is a trickster who arranges a playdate with a medicated AD/HD child’s mother, then goes to the bathroom to steal his meds. Later, she goes for a session of acupuncture. When the Chinese acupuncturist pulls down a jar of herbs from the top shelf to help Lynette with her sleep and stress it is clear that the acupuncturist is a stand in for a girl’s trip to the knowing witch who lives in the middle of the forest.

STORY STRUCTURE OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES

An interesting thing I started to notice about Desperate Housewives is that after every recap of the previous episode we get a mini-story before the main one, much like in the Pixar film Up. The writers call it the ‘teaser’.

Example from Season One, Episode 7:

The story opens with a fully-formed short story about Martha Huber’s garden. Jealous [PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS] of the perfectionist Bree’s [OPPONENT] lawn next door, it doesn’t matter what Mrs Huber does, whether she water it diligently or cover it in smelly but potent fertilizers [PLAN], she cannot get it looking as good as Bree’s. One day [SWITCH FROM THE ITERATIVE TO THE SINGULATIVE], a jogger dies on Mrs Huber’s lawn.  Mrs Huber has an idea for revenge. She secretly drags the dead body into the middle of Bree’s beautiful garden of hydrangeas. [BIG STRUGGLE] When Bree discovers the body she calls an ambulance. When medicos arrive to pick up the body, their gurney destroys both garden bed and beautiful lawn. We see from the looks on their faces that Bree is disappointed and bewildered while Mrs Huber is smug and avenged [NEW SITUATION].

In Episode 8 we don’t so much get a fully formed story as intro so much as a backstory of Bree’s early life. This is to show us that Bree has been brought up to be a Good Girl, and now that her son has run over a neighbour’s mother-in-law, her morality will face the ultimate test.

SHORTCOMING

Bree — Bree is the most closely connected to the setting. She is at first presented as the archetypal Stepford Wife. Just like the perfect suburb they all live in, Bree keeps her house perfect. She can turn her hand to anything related to the house and children. She is undoubtedly a conservative Republican Christian. Hints are dropped to that effect. Bree avoids absolute cliche — or perhaps she epitomises it — by the fact she is a gun nut, a member of the NRA and owner of three weapons. As her husband points out, she is capable of looking after her own self.  But Bree is held hostage by her own perfectionist tendencies. Like Chekhov’s planted gun, when we learn she owns not one but three, we know she is capable of snapping. She points out to her friends, “Who really knows what’s going on behind closed doors?” which of course makes us wonder what’s going on behind hers.

Gabby — Gabrielle is bored. As she explains to her teenaged gardener toy boy, Carlos gives her everything she wanted. She just didn’t want the right things. She doesn’t realise it herself but she needs to be kept occupied. She can’t even really enjoy shopping, since Carlos buys her expensive gifts and there is no challenge in it.

Lynette — Lynette is not so much ‘bored’ as harried. She is the mirror reflection of Gabrielle. We picture Lynette when Gabby’s mother-in-law advises her to fill her days up with children, then she won’t have any time to wonder whether she’s happy or not. Lynette is harried and unfulfilled. She didn’t realise until it was too late that she doesn’t really like the job of mothering. But Desperate Housewives can only go so far with this. They have to show that Lynette really does love her boys, and the Mama Bear comes out at times, such as with the clueless traffic officer who tells her that her job is to control her own kids. She does bend over backwards to get them into private school, though it could just as easily be argued that she sees this as a personal challenge. Lynette needs to find fulfilment doing something other than wiping, mopping and breaking up fights.

Susan — Susan is an adorable klutz. Bella Swan has similar attributes. This seems to be a surefire way to garner the sympathies of some of the audience. In fact, Susan comes across calamities so often there is almost a supernatural element to her misfortune, as if she were cursed at birth by the thirteenth witch. Despite the fact that she must be a hugely successful children’s book illustrator to continue living in that big house, she is presented as an ineffectual divorcee. She uses her teenage daughter as a confidante in what would be, in real life, called emotional incest. The relationship between Susan and her daughter is quite similar to that between the Gilmore girls. The daughter is far more together and sensible than the needy mother, who doesn’t seem to have a best friend other than her daughter. If anyone needs a man to ground her, Susan does.

DESIRE

For maximum narrative drive the hero in each plot line must overcome extreme odds to accomplish a specific and difficult goal. There are four heroes in this drama and each of them has her own distinct desire line.

Bree — Bree wants to live a Pinterest life (though Desperate Housewives predates Pinterest). Let’s just call it a picture book life. (It’s no accident she lives on the same street as a picture book illustrator.) More than that, Bree wants to appear perfect. If she appears perfect to others, that is basically the same as being perfect. She would be happy with that. However, her husband is not. He craves a relationship with a rounded person with flaws, not with the cardboard cutout of a Campbell’s Soup commercial.

Bree is my favourite character, though I do not share her outlook on life in the slightest. I think I respect her because unlike the other main characters, she’s living true to her own moral code. (This will  be sorely tested, but even then, we can still understand her motivations.)

Bree’s goal of appearing perfect moves further away when: Her husband announces he is not happy and he wants a divorce.

Gabby — Gabby manufactures a challenge; her challenge is to continue having sex with the gardener behind the back of the macho, violent Carlos. This is her desire line for season one.

Gabby’s goal of meaningless sex moves further away when: Her mother-in-law comes to stay. With her middle-aged-woman’s sixth sense she realises Gabby is having an affair with someone, so chaperones her everywhere. This leads to much comedy and friction as Gabrielle thinks of increasingly ingenious and underhanded ways to get rid of the woman.

Lynette — wants to get her boys a good education but absolutely definitely does not want to homeschool. That’s the outer goal. Her inner desire is to find fulfilment. Lynette finds fulfilment by looking competent in the eyes of other adults. If she can’t be the CEO, she can at least find her place at the top of the private school mom pecking order.

This goal moves further away when: The public school system threatens to kick her children out of school unless she medicates them for ADHD. She makes clear to her husband that she’s not up to homeschooling them for fear of killing them, so the next goal is to get them into a fancy private school. She manages this by hook and by crook. Lynette is now plunged into the fascinating and uber-bitchy world of snobby private school mothers. Her new goal is to keep the boys there, and because she does not believe in medicating their boys for their ADHD

Susan —  When the handsome and available Mike moves into the neighbourhood in the pilot episode, Susan sets her sights on him — or rather, her daughter does, since Susan isn’t really capable of making any goals on her own. (This character trait is later ignored when she sets upon the mission of finding out the mystery of Mary Alice’s death, in which case she’s like a dog with a bone.)

Susan’s goal of finding happiness with Mike moves further away when: The brassy neighbourhood ‘slut’ sets her sights on Mike, and set up an unspoken rivalry, turning the man into the pawn in the middle. Since the pursuit of Mike isn’t a very meaty plot line, even with Edie as opponent, Susan’s klutziness sees her burn Edie’s house down. She now has another opponent in the nosy, manipulative middle-aged neighbour who finds her measuring cup as evidence and tries to blackmail her with it.

OPPONENT

An opponent refers simply to the character who stands in the way of a hero’s desire. Opponents differ from episode to episode. Some come and go; others are sustained over the entire season and beyond. Each main character has at least two main opponents.

Bree — Bree’s husband, next her own son. The daughter seems to be an ambivalent peacemaker for the most part. The psychologist isn’t helping her cause either.

Gabby — Gabby’s husband is shown to be a violent man who could easily turn his violence upon  her. The mother is also a bit of a gangster mother and makes an excellent comical opponent.

Lynette — At times her husband Tom, who stupidly suggests she homeschool, Lynette finds a more sustaining opponent in the private school queen bee.

Susan — It’s perhaps strange that a klutz like Susan Mayer has the largest number of opponents, but remember this is partly because the romance between her and Mike isn’t quite meaty enough, and there need to be many reasons why she and Mike can’t simply get together right at the start of the season. Therefore, consider Mike Susan’s ‘love opponent’, in a very similar dynamic to any found in a rom-com film. Susan’s ex-husband and the young, new girlfriend present as opponents at first, but when Lynette suggests Susan let go of her baggage and move past stupid can kicking rivalries the audience is no doubt relieved to see Susan take that advice. The audience has seen ex-husband rivalry before, and besides, the issues between Bree and her husband make for a far more interesting take on the divorce story because we get to see a break up from its embryonic stage. There’s Edie of course, who is a fun opponent because she treats man-hunting as a game. It’s hard not to like Edie. Many probably like Edie more than they like Susan. Likewise, Susan has a knack for getting the fictional older ladies off-side. Several of them are not charmed by her klutziness. One bribes her; another won’t let her borrow her car.

PLAN

We don’t see the characters making plans, or even talking about them very much. They are all trickster characters. We watch a scene and realise, “Ah, I know what you’re doing here.” It is satisfying to watch this even if we morally disapprove. Especially if we morally disapprove.

Bree — As far as she can understand, if she keeps a perfect home and garden, no one has the right to complain about anything. Her plan is always to do more and better. Bree is always wearing a mask. We see her try on a different mask in the bedroom, because she (correctly) senses that her husband is secretly kinky. As soon as the hotel date goes wrong, Bree switches from her Tiger In The Bedroom persona back into her Perfect Housewife persona. Bree’s plan is not working and she loses her family. This is Bree at her lowest, but the camera doesn’t show us that. We are shown circumstances conspiring to bring her children back to her. Andrew wants his mother the night he runs over Mrs Solis the elder.

Gabby — Gabby has no problems getting her mother-in-law back into gambling so she can steal one ‘last’ moment with her gardener.

Lynette — We realise as soon as Lynette wants to use the bathroom that she is planning on stealing another child’s Ritalin. We also understand in that moment that she has planned this playdate for the express purpose of stealing it.

Susan — Susan is the least successful trickster. She is really, truly bad at it. She is the mirror image of Bree on this point. Bree would never fall through a ceiling while snooping — we have already seen Bree successfully snoop at the psychologist’s office.

BIG STRUGGLE

Bree — Even when in big struggle, Bree looks her best and remains calm. Dinner at the fast food place where she learns her husband is leaving her, being affronted at the psychologist’s office, a cringe-worthy dinner party with the neighbours in which she gets the upper hand, an unsuccessful attempt at sex with her husband, locking her own children out of the house in a well-coordinated plan to get them back.

Gabby — Gabby’s big struggles are both ridiculous and real-world serious. When her husband assaults her, it’s serious. But most of the time even the arguments she has with Carlos is somewhat funny, as these characters declare they love each other while scheming and manipulating the other in a high-stakes game of chess.

Lynette — Having a bust up with the PTA Bitch, arguing with her husband about his suggestions she homeschool, losing it with the traffic officer, and memorably, coming down off Ritalin and hallucinating. She ends up sitting in a football field, a space we most closely with her archetype, The Frazzled Soccer Mom. Lynette’s big struggles are linked to child-rearing in most instances, and it’s almost always with other mothers. For instance, I’m reminded of the big struggle scenes from Courage The Cowardly Dog when Lynette bounces on an inflated castle while in a showdown with another mother about who brought head lice into the school. In Courage, also, big struggles often take the form of childhood games — squash, food fights, a train heist with a toy train. This allows us to find the big struggles funny.

Susan — Accidentally setting Edie’s house on fire, a big argument with her neighbour, then with Mike, falling over before making it onto the mechanical bull; Susan Mayer’s big struggle scenes are sometimes borne of ‘unpractised’ bitchiness and at other times occur as a result of her clumsiness. Susan is an inconsistent character, though the writers have created Susan knowingly. Edie points this out (lampshades this set of traits) for the audience when she accuses Susan of being adorably klutzy but actually pretty scheming. Susan’s flaws are also pointed out by Edie’s guy who ends up sitting on the side of the road with her after a second flat tyre.

ANAGNORISIS

In a long-running comedy series it is impossible for the characters to learn from their own mistakes. If they did, Susan would no longer put herself in calamity’s path, Bree would loosen up, Gabby would become genuinely altruistic and Lynette would somehow find a successful work-life balance.

Why does almost every series that doesn’t regularly refresh its characters have a life span of only two to three years? […] Characters have only one story, and all attempts to counter that are a lie. Soaps and series are lies — great and glorious ones if the lies are well told, but lies nonetheless. Soaps and series are partly a product of market economics, born from a desire to attract viewers and sell to them — but equally, like sequels, they tap into an audience’s desire to prolong the lives of characters they adore. As with those we love in real life, we want our fictitious friends to live forever. Authors and television executives recognize this and acknowledge too that it’s much easier to attract people to the readily familiar, the tried and the tested. And so the lie is told again.

Drama demands that characters must change, but the audience by and large — ‘we’, let’s be honest — insist they stay exactly the same. […] Deep down we expect film franchises to wane, but drama series are by definition a returning medium; they must reproduce to survive. Series characters can’t get to the end of their journey or the story is over, so their creators face the same dilemma as Hollywood but massively amplified. […] Stubbornly two-dimensional, they exist outside time and space […] Most of us have been frustrated by long-running shows were ingenue characters never seem to learn from their experiences, or equally annoyed when they do learn and stop being the character we first fell in love with.

John York: Into The Woods

Though I haven’t watched subsequent seasons I hear Bree does in fact have quite a character change — the most stark of all the women, which makes her the most ‘main’ of the main characters.

But generally, the characters of Wisteria Lane do not learn from their mistakes. If they did, show over. However, in true fairytale form, these characters and their flaws exist to teach the audience a lesson. In other words, in fairytale form the viewer is the one meant to have the anagnorisis. Not in this spoof version, however. It’s expected the audience already knows these life lessons. Despite the storybook structure the audience are not children. At the end of each episode the dead storyteller narrator explains the Moral Of The Story. A viewer who takes this seriously will feel talked-down-to — it’s important to regard this as fairytale satire.

Mary Alice Young = Charles Perrault

It isn’t easy giving up power admitting that we might need help from friends and neighbors, deciding that a loved one might know what’s best for us, giving up our better judgment for a slightly darker agenda, but for some the hardest kind of power to give up is the power to control their own desires.

Mary Alice Young

In fact, if you take a look at the storyteller narrator’s quotes all in a row, you’ll be struck with how trite they sound. The Mary Alice opening and closing lines are outlining, as if for an English literature class, the morals of age-old fairytales. If you’ve ever read the fairytales as transcribed by Charles Perrault, you’ll know that Perrault literally spent the last paragraph of a story outlining the moral in exactly this way.

These moral lessons are conservative, each and every one of them.

Keeping secrets is a lonely business. That’s why we all search for someone to confide in: an ally who will understand, an advisor who we can trust, a friend who will never judge.

Mary Alice Young

Generally in straight (non-satirical) adult fiction we’ll be asked to consider whether that’s really true. A common ideology of children’s stories is that secrets are always bad. (One exception to that is a recent book called Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk which, interestingly, she initially wrote intending an adult audience.)

The quotes from Mary Alice also function as a teaser, and are therefore broken into four parts:

Yes, we often learn our most important lessons outside the classroom. The painful truth about the state of a relationship [1], the ugly cost of challenging authority [2], the sad fact that life’s colors aren’t always rosy [3], then are those who refuse to accept these important lessons. They simply wait to teach a lesson of their own [4].

Mary Alice Young

NEW SITUATION

Since this is a continuing series, the final episode of Season One must both satisfy and intrigue.

We are satisfied because the mystery of narrator Mary Alice becomes completely clear in the final episode. Everything is explained regarding this enduring mystery. The character we knew was going to die does die.

It also intrigues because there is a brand new family on the street and they obviously have a secret of some kind.   Each of the four main characters has a new beginning ahead of her and we want to know what will happen to them.

Bree — Bree is about to enter a new phase of her life now that her husband is dead.

Gabby — So is Gabby, pregnant and about to say goodbye to her jailbird husband.

Lynette — Lynette is being pushed back into the workforce. How’s that going to go?

Susan — And Susan is moving in with Mike.

The Frog Prince Fairytale

princess-and-the-frog-ladybird-book-well-loved-tales-series-606d-gloss-hardback-1984-4177-p

This famous tale is also known as The Princess And The Frog, The Frog Prince, A Frog For A Husband and similar variants. In most of these stories the princess is depicted as a spoilt brat.

Sometimes the story goes so far as being called The Kind Stepdaughter And The Frog, which is actually more like The Fairies (which stars a fairy rather than a frog and has jewels falling out of the young woman’s mouth) than it is like my versions of this frog fairytale from childhood. In the 1980s I had this Ladybird edition:

Princess and the Frog-04

Humans Marrying Animals

There’s an entire category of Märchen about humans who marry animals, or rather, a human being who has been (off-the-page) transmogrified into the form of an animal. I suppose these humans have been cursed by a witch, and I would very much like to know that particular backstory, but anyhow, “The Frog King” is the standout example of this folklore motif. This is a European story, but can be found all over the world. Mermaids, seals and swans are also popular as marriage partners in animal form.

Where the groom is an animal, the young woman doesn’t want to marry an animal. It never occurs to her that if everyone is forcing her to marry this talking animal, he might actually be a human underneath. These marriages are forced.

Where the bride is an animal, she’ll be the victim of trauma. Again, stories emphasise the trauma of the female partner. She’ll have been abducted, forced into an unhappy marriage, perhaps her husband hit her or broke some other societal taboo. Then she finds a means to escape (e.g. a magic cap/skin/feather cloak). There will be storyworld rules about what you are and aren’t allowed to do with this woman: You can’t look at them in a certain time/place, you can’t call their name, you can’t ask certain questions or she’ll vanish (e.g. “The Porpoise Girl”, a Micronesian tale, or in Irish tales about the Merrow/mermaid). The best known fairy tale about an animal bride is the “Swan Maiden”. This story has been traced back to Rig Veda (India).

RANCES MACDONALD MACNAIR (1873-1921) The Frog Prince
RANCES MACDONALD MACNAIR (1873-1921) The Frog Prince

Moral Lesson

There’s no shortage of fairytales which teach the lesson that girls must just marry who they’re told to marry. Even if they find the man repulsive, once she gets to know him she’ll suddenly wake up to herself and find him attractive. This may be an example of what Marina Warner has called the ‘death by engulfment’ fairytale. Unlike fairy tales starring boys and men, who fight big struggles to overcome their personal demons, the death by engulfment plot is about the psychosexual trauma of being a young woman forced into marriage and childbearing. A story such as The Frog Princess may well have been created and retold by women rather than men, as a way of coping with being a reproductive vessel throughout the long history of humankind in which women had no say over their reproduction. Bluebeard is another example of a ‘death by engulfment’ tale. “Go with the flow and everything will be all right,” this story tells them.

The fear of childbirth is now known as tocophobia. In the age of the Internet, women have been criticised for sharing stories of childbirth online and therefore inducing new tocophobia in other women, but the variety of fairytales such as The Frog Princess show us clearly that women have ALWAYS been frightened of childbirth. That’s because childbirth is frightening.

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm The Frog Prince, 1909 Arthur Rackham; 1867-1939
The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm The Frog Prince, 1909 Arthur Rackham; 1867-1939

More widely, we might consider fear of engulfment as a liminal space between girlhood and womanhood — a period of unguarded impulses, savagery and cruelty in sexual love, mixed with the desire for security and and protection. Katherine Mansfield’s young women are often said to be in this space, afraid of adult relationships, wishing to remain in an emotional state of childlike fantasy.

Beauty and the Beast is another example of a ‘death by engulfment’ tale. This traditional belief about how female desire works can be seen in Beauty and the Beast and Ricky With The Tuft. In his conclusion of Ricky With The Tuft, Charles Perrault specifically explains to the reader that the magic in his story is simply a metaphor for the way women are inclined to fall in love. Though men always seek physical beauty, women look instead for virtue and some kind of essential goodness.

Ricky With The Tuft

“Men like young, beautiful women but women like older, powerful men.”

This view of female sexual desire has been so pervasive throughout the history of literature that it may have even succeeded in persuading young women themselves. Which is exactly why a story such as The Frog Prince would have come into existence. When women literally belong, as chattels, to their husbands, it is one challenge of man to indoctrinate their daughters into believing that whomever the father chooses for her on her behalf is indeed the best choice, even if he does not seem so at first.

The Frog Prince And Rape Culture

The discourse around rape culture that’s heightened over the past decade has turned a fairytale such as The Frog Princess into a very obvious rapey, creepy story and I find it amazing how seldom this particular tale is updated for a modern young audience, even as other tales are frequently riffed on.

The Frog Prince requires a certain view of morality that can be seen even in much more modern children’s literature:

bad as telling a lie frog prince

This view of lying and morality is heavily gendered. Overwhelmingly in traditional stories it is young female characters who are punished heavily for promising something, often under a degree of duress, then going back on ‘their word’. Note that in the Ladybird edition, the princess actually says:

“I’ll give you anything you wish for… You can have my clothes or my jewels or even my golden crown, if only you will find my golden crown.”

She promises anyTHING. She does not, at any stage, promise a frog herSELF.

When the frog specifies that he wants to marry her, she assumes (quite rightly, I would think) that he’s ‘talking a lot of nonsense’. After all, retrieving a ball, golden or not, from a shallow pond is hardly a favour that warrants sexual slavery for the rest of one’s life.

Apart from the frog’s complete manipulation of her intent, evident in transcripts of rape trials all around the world, there are other significant real-world problems with the moral lesson in this book:

  1. The young woman learns she has no right to change her mind about anything, even if she matures as a person. And main characters always change the course of a story; that’s what makes a story a story.
  2. In cases where the promise involves male disappointment, she learns that his right to receive is greater than her right to refuse.
  3. She absorbs the idea that a ‘yes’ in a previous situation also means an unspoken ‘yes’ in a subsequent situation.
  4. As long as the prince has ‘a kind face’ and she is sexually attracted to him, previous horrible acts of duress dissipate as if they never happened.
Marianne Stokes (1855-1927)  The Frog Prince
Marianne Stokes (1855-1927) The Frog Prince

I have no time for the view that young readers get nothing out of such fairytales, being too naive to even understand the nature of sexual consent. I asked my six year old daughter, who enjoys this story, who was the ‘goodie’ and who was the ‘baddie’ in this story. At the time, she said “The princess should have kept her promise.”

“Should she have to marry the frog, even if she doesn’t want to?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I highly recommend asking your children similar questions after reading this story to them. You might be surprised by what they’ve absorbed. It should come as no surprise; everything in the illustrations and text encourages empathy with the frog rather than with the too-beautiful-for-her-own-good princess.

Take this image for instance. We have a frog alone, in the foreground. His hopes for happiness have just been dashed. Also, the young reader familiar with fairytales will know this is actually a prince.

“Wait for me! Wait for me!” croaked the poor frog. “I can’t run as fast as you can!”

Wait for me Princess and Frog prince

This show of abject helplessness reminds me very much of an episode of The I.T. Crowd in which Roy elicits manipulative empathy by pretending to need a wheelchair.

The difference is, the comedy version makes fun of Roy; the fairytale frog elicits genuine empathy for the frog.

Characterisation In The Frog Princess

Since the Greek myth of Narcissus it’s difficult to read a story about a solitary figure next to a pond without assuming a degree of vanity. This beautiful princess, the youngest of seven daughters, is the most beautiful of the lot. Often in fairytales the beauty equals goodness, but in this particular retelling, her beauty equals self-absorption and vanity. She must be punished for such narcissism.

Story Structure of The Frog Princess

Whose story is this? Do I treat the princess as the main character, or the frog? The frog is the man with the plan. The princess is reactive. But that’s not how we can tell the main character of a story: Best to ask, “Who changes the most?” At first glance the frog changes the most — from frog to human. But this is not a psychological or moral change. Instead, it’s simply a change of circumstance, and those don’t count when we’re talking specifically about character arcs.

Indeed, the Princess undergoes the change of heart. The princess is the main character.

The Princess has been playing with a ball near a body of water (a well or a pond, typically) and the ball falls into it. She is unable to retrieve it herself.

The image of the young woman outside in nature playing on her own with a ball must be a fairly strong one in the collective imagination. The painting below reminds me of this fairytale.

Child playing with ball in spring garden Illustration by Millicent Etheldreda Gray for poem by Robert Herrick
Child playing with ball in spring garden Illustration by Millicent Etheldreda Gray for poem by Robert Herrick

SHORTCOMING

The Princess is a liar. In a kinder reading you might say she is capricious, but this Ladybird retelling leans more towards ‘liar’. She needs to learn to keep her word.

Princess and the Frog-12
Frog prince and the Maiden,  Walter Crane 1874
Frog prince and the Maiden, Walter Crane 1874

DESIRE

She has no overt desires of her own. Instead she is involved in a chase, a potential victim of arranged and unhappy marriage

OPPONENT

The ugly frog, who she does not want to marry. In a romantic plot, the man and the woman are each others’ opponents. The King is also the opponent of the princess, for wanting what the frog wants.

PLAN

After getting her ball back she has no plans at all. She wipes all memory of the frog from her mind. The frog has other plans. His plan is persistence. There are so many ideological problems with persistence.

BIG STRUGGLE

The frog turns up at her door and inserts himself into her life with her father’s blessing.

frog prince eating

She barely touched her food and each mouthful seemed to choke her. The frog, however, enjoyed every bite he ate.

It’s well known that in children’s literature, food basically equals sex. Mull on that for a minute.

Even when a girl is crying, the frog’s needs come first:

When he had finished eating, the frog turned to the princess and said, “Now I am tired, please take me to your room and we will lie on your little, silken bed and go to sleep.”

At that the youngest princess burst into tears. She did not like to touch the cold, little frog and she could not bear to think of him beside her in her own bed.

The princess has to go to bed frog prince

Note that the princess doesn’t like him because he is ‘cold’ and ‘little’, but those are the very attributes the reader is encouraged to sympathise with.

Notice how the Ladybird illustration omits the majority of the bed. It is far more confronting to show the princess and the frog in the bed together. Arthur Rackham didn’t shy away from it. Again, the perspective is from the frog’s point of view, but this is slightly shocking. Because if you’re a frog looking at a girl in her bed from the feet up, as if approaching the bed, you probably should be shocked.

From 'The Frog Prince' 1909 illustrated by Arthur Rackham
From ‘The Frog Prince’ 1909 illustrated by Arthur Rackham

ANAGNORISIS

The frog turns into a prince and she realises she loves him now.

the prince transformation

My reading of the text is uncomfortably sexual; after sharing her bed with a male character for the first time, suddenly she is in love. Probably because she hadn’t read Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex.

NEW SITUATION

Frog and Princess get married and the prince takes her away to his own family’s palace in a different kingdom. The princess has officially been married off as chattel.

 The Disney Movie Adaptation

I can’t bring myself to watch it, but this snippet sums it up to save me a few hours:

[Disney] strayed waaaaaay too far from the central motifs. No spoiled princess, no pact that ends with the girl having to share her bed with a reptile, no violence integral to the story – in many versions, the frog becomes a man after the girl has thrown him against the wall in disgust and anger. There was violence in the Disney movie, but it was parenthetical, and banter is a poor substitute for real conflict.

Soapboxing

What would an excellent retelling of The Princess and the Frog look like to me? Regardless of the plot, the re-visioned story would require an inverted set of moral lessons:

  1. Girls are allowed to change their minds.
  2. A man’s sexual desires are not to be placed above those of a woman expected to fulfil them.
  3. Beauty does not equal spoilt-bratishness; nor does it equal goodness. Beauty is what it is, but naivety and isolation might indeed make you the target of some predator in the woods.
  4. A girl/woman is in charge of her own sexuality. She knows what she wants and does not need to be coerced by any men in her life. One night with a man doesn’t transform a woman. The penis is not a magic wand.
  5. A marriage based on deception and coercion never leads to a happy ending. If the story followed this princess to her castle, we’d find she leads a miserable life with this entitled deviant of a man. (And I suspect he’d turned into a frog for a very good reason in the first place.)

FURTHER READING

This tale irritates the hell out of me. As catharsis I wrote my own. It’s called “The F**k Princess“.