Monday, February 20, 2017

Boys VS Books: Gaston and the Book with No Pictures

A little while ago, I started a new post series centered around the problems facing boys in regards to literacy. I framed the initial discussion around Disney's Beauty and the Beast and how reading is portrayed within that movie. The movie is famous for its positive portrayal of Belle as a modern, forward thinking princess, and that portrayal is driven home through her love of books. But while Belle is constantly shown reading, the men around her all have problematic relationships with books.

If you're interested in reading the earlier discussion, you can find the previous posts in this series here:

1. Boys vs Books: A Tale as Old as Time
2. Boys vs Books: Beating Back Against Busy

Today, we're looking at one of the three male characters Belle attempts to share her love of books with. Today, we have moved on to Gaston.

First off, I love this image. It cracks me up every time. Ahem...

From the perspective of a writer, this is one of the most problematic scenes in the movie. Belle's love of books is used as shorthand to convey her intelligence and independence to the viewer, so it's little surprise that they're similarly used as a tool to show that Gaston is stupid and domineering - the perfect threat when you consider that he fancies himself her suitor.

The domineering aspects of his personality come from the way he steals the book and eventually tosses it into a mud puddle. (I'm not going to argue. This is pretty low.)

The stupid comes from this line:

"How can you read this? There's no pictures!"

HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! Hilarious! He thought the book should have pictures in it! What does he want? A children's book? Ridiculous!

In all honesty... the line is actually pretty funny. His reaction and his facial expression and his behavior are so oafish. It treads the line between mocking him but also making him a threatening presence. I can see why the filmmakers wrote it this way.

And yet that comment he makes about expecting a book to have pictures plays into some persistent cultural stereotypes about what books are "worthy" of praise and attention and what books are "unworthy." And wouldn't you guess it? The very books the movie is making fun of are among the books that little boys are most likely to find interesting.

I'm talking, of course, about comic books.

Words and Pictures

During my Master's program, I had an excellent professor who taught my foundation course on children's literature. He had a deep appreciation for old books, the history of the discipline, as well as an enthusiasm for what modern writers were doing now in children's literature. More than anyone, I heard him repeat the command to read, read, READ extensively within your genre if you wanted to create work of publishable quality. He also was a remarkable writer and someone whose work I continue to admire. I plan on being just like him when I grow up.

So let's say you want to teach your child to love books as much as he does. What is the foundation on which this enthusiasm for books was based? As it turns out, comics. As a kid, comics were a far more natural love for him than the books he was SUPPOSED to love. During adolescence, he wanted to be a comic book artist when he grew up, not a novelist. Hints of this still exist in his works, such as illustrated chapter titles.

Of course, for his chosen career path, he eventually had to fall in love with honest-to-goodness-pictureless books too, but the transition between an avid comic reader to a literature super fan is not as strange as it might seem on first glance.

During my research for this series of posts, I was struck by the fact that from the perspective of educators, many of the skills that fall under the umbrella of "literacy skills" are things that you can pick up from other forms of art. Skills like the ability to follow and explain a narrative, or the ability to empathize with a character. These skills can even be developed by having thoughtful discussions with your kids about the movies they watch.

But the amazing thing about comic books is that they provide a natural bridge between visual storytelling and text based storytelling. We're used to the notion that younger children use the pictures in their books to get hints at what the text might say. The same holds true with comics, but with the added bonus that the language and storylines have grown more complicated, since they're usually aimed at an older audience. Even if you have someone who has fine reading comprehension, comics might still help with reading engagement, since they provide helps for readers to visualize the world the story is describing.

And yes, an enthusiasm and passion for comics can lead to a passion for books. And vice versa. Yet you still hear things like what my professor once said when he told us, "I didn't read a lot as a kid. I mostly read comics."

Somehow, both those sentences contain the word "read" in them, because comics are a form of reading that doesn't "count." The Ontario School Board, in their work in boys literacy, notes that many boys who are labelled as poor readers often read far more than they think they do, but they don't believe what they do counts as real reading. They don't report that they frequently will read comics, instruction booklets for video games, sports magazines, web pages filled with information about baseball or animals or Minecraft or cars or whatever other hobbies they might have. Children are highly intuitive and they pick up quickly that adults don't place a lot of stock in reading those things. So is it any surprise that they don't value their own achievements in these areas?

The Price of Literary Elitism

To me, the comic book conundrum is symptomatic of larger problems that the book world has around literary elitism. Certain types of books tend to get valued more than others. Disdain for comics and magazines grows as we age to include an ever-increasing array of books. Oddly enough, it tends to smack people in the face along both gender lines. Romance is confined to a "pink ghetto" while science fiction gets treated like the quintessential "bad books for men."

I'll never forget the first writing course I ever took as a naïve undergrad student. My instructor explained the course syllabus and then had all of us introduce ourselves by name, and favorite book. It was the early 2000s, we averaged around 18 years old and you could see the side of his lip twitching as half the class announced their love for Harry Potter. Then he told us all, very flatly, "so you know, we only study literary fiction here. You won't be writing mystery, suspense, romance, science fiction or fantasy. They're all too formulaic. We want you to learn from great writers instead."

No wizards or spaceships. Both far too childish. We weren't to deal in the whiz-bang plots of thrillers, clearly intended only for the uneducated masses. And heaven help us if we wanted to write a story that existed solely to explain how people fall in love!

I can't tell you how much I wanted that writing program to work for me. I'd wanted to study writing my whole life. But sadly, I realized it wouldn't be during my undergrad, because my world of writing couldn't function if it had to be that small. (Incidentally, my main project for that class was a short story that took place during the after-life, and I got an A+ on it because my professor knew so little about speculative fiction, he never realized I'd tricked him into reading paranormal fantasy.)

Sometimes when I think back to that first undergraduate writing course I took, I'm amazed anyone reads at all. Or writes at all. There are so many people who are foaming at the mouth, eager for their chance to tell you that what you're reading is stupid. People who might not know much at all about the books that you love, but are dead certain you shouldn't waste your time on them.

Books! Books for everyone! You get a book! And you! AND YOU!!!!

I'm a firm believer that if we want to increase literacy, it doesn't happen by demanding people like very specific things. In one of my previous posts, I touched on how important it is to meet readers where they are, rather than insist they conform to your tastes. This should also mean NOT belittling what they're interested in.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that incorporating comics and other alternatives to traditional books in education is a balancing act. I'm not here to argue that comics should replace books or that literary fiction be thrown from the curriculum in favor of Harry Potter. What I hope is that they'll be treated more as allies in a common cause.

When I first read Howard's End, a classic novel from 1911, I fell in love so quickly with the text because it reminded me of Peter Pan. Plot-wise, the two books have nothing in common. One is decidedly sillier than the other. But you know what they do share? Time period. They're both Edwardian novels and I realized that part of what I liked about the books was a particular turn of phrase that was in style just before the start of the First World War. Pan prepared me to love a classic novel, and that in turn taught me to be more curious about literature from that whole time period.

The frivolous books of our childhood - the books with pictures - are often preparing and informing our taste in adult literature. And with the sophistication of many graphic novels and comics, they can continue to be an influence, worthy of engagement. It doesn't have to be an either/or.

Rethinking Belle

So like last time with the baker, let's attempt to re-imagine the scene where Gaston steals Belle's book and make it, ummm.... better?

Gaston: How can you read this? There's no pictures!
Belle: Well, there's actually a graphic novel version of The Graveyard Book too, if you're interested in seeing the story illustrated.
Gaston: Belle, that was just an excuse to start talking to you. I'd rather we talked about me now. *throws book into mud*

Look, he's the villain of the story. We can only do so much.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

La La Land and the Dreaded PG Rating

As awards season takes hold, my interest in the movies can't help but increase. It's enjoyable, watching the press squabble over what deserves to bring home the big trophies and reading the think pieces about whether or not the Academy is "in touch" with the common viewer anymore.

And like a lot of people who don't go to the movies all that often, I definitely use the awards as an indicator of what I might be interested in seeing that I missed during the hectic Christmas season.

That in itself is a juggling act, because I don't tend to like watching too much violence or sex in my movies. So I also spend a lot of time reading over reviews and rating guides, trying to figure out what I'll enjoy and what will send me running out of the theatre, crying like a five-year-old.

You would think it wouldn't be that hard - that some rule like "skip the movies rated R" would work for me, but it really doesn't. It's incredible how much violence - gun violence in particular - can make it into a PG-13 rated film. And similarly, it's confusing to me why a movie that essentially has nothing but a few F words gets slapped with an R. Some of this is my own personal preferences, but I'll take cussing over guns almost any day.

Of course exceptions apply, and this is sort of the point of the whole post - that the rating guides are arbitrary and so are individual tastes, which makes categorizing based on content incredibly difficult. But adding to the trouble is something we don't often think about enough - movie ratings aren't just content indicators, they're audience marketing tools.

La La Land and the Dreaded PG Rating

Which brings us back to awards season - this awards season, to be exact. One of the big, splashy movies that everyone is talking about is La La Land, an old fashioned musical about love, art and the movie industry. It's gorgeously shot and orchestrated, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone turn in charming performances and the art direction is on point. If you're on the fence about seeing it, I really enjoyed it, so take that for what it's worth.

It's also rated PG-13 for one - literally, only one. I counted - use of the F word in the entire film.

There is no sex or violence, and only mild cussing throughout the rest of the film. If it hadn't been for that one word, it absolutely would have ended up with a PG rating. In fact, the language is so mild in the rest of the film, I half wonder if it could have pulled a G.

So why did they include that word? Did it add to the story? No. Was it particularly funny? Not really. Was it essential to characterization? No, can't say it was. The one purpose it served was raising the rating.

La La Land is far from the only movie to use this sort of ploy. There's a whole slew of animated movies that include one or two jokes that are just a tiny bit racey so that they can get a PG rating instead of G. Did you know Inside Out was rated PG? What an edgy film, amiright?

The reasons for both of these decisions are the same - marketing. Movies have no way of signaling to their potential audience who they are intended for except through the content rating system.

When you go to the bookstore (yes, this IS about books on some level), you generally won't find any content ratings. Maybe the Erotica is shelved separately from the other books, but even then, you don't see a warning notice above it. Your ten-year-old could head into a bookstore at any moment and pick up a copy of 50 Shades of Gray, but they don't generally do that. Why? Well, because it's not in the kid's section.

That's the genius of bookstores. They shelve by audience, not content. If a story can cross-over between two different audiences, it tends to have copies shelved in both, so you'll find Catcher in the Rye both in the YA section and among the literary classics in the adult section. It's also why you'll find Margaret Atwood shelved both in General Fiction and Sci-Fi. She's considered appropriate both for the nerdy and the literary set.

In the absence of a similar ability to "shelve" movies, the rating system has become the next best thing. G = Picture Books, PG = Middle Grade, PG-13 = Young Adult and R = Adult. Or so it seems. If film makers want to communicate that their project is a "Family Film," intended for more than the tiniest of tinies, they tend to think they need a PG or PG-13 rating. In La La Land's case, it wanted to position itself as an adult film, and people are okay with the notion that adults might enjoy something that's also appropriate for teens. That's not TOO babyish, right?

The funny thing about this shelving strategy, is that it becomes all the less logical when books actually get adapted to film. A YA book might come out anywhere on the scale of G (Like Anne of Green Gables) to R (Like Perks of Being a Wallflower). One of the great conundrums of adaptation is that our cultural standards for books and movies are so incredibly different. In books, it's not so much what the story contains, but how it engages the subject matter. Harry Potter is about death, war and racism and is appropriate for your ten-year-old. Wolf by Wolf is about all those same things, and it isn't. But they aren't next to each other in the bookstore, so it doesn't really matter.

You can tell there was real anxiety that La La Land might not draw in its intended audience if it didn't send the signal that it was meant for older viewers. And I do tend to agree with their decision to market the movie to adults. Some older children might like it, but it's not precisely a family film. Tonally, it's appealing to someone else - someone who wants their spinning, happy musical to include a touch of melancholy. So it strikes me as kind of a shame that in order to "shelve" it, they had to include one word that feels oddly dissonant in the rest of the movie.

I'm not sure what a rating system that worked based on audience rather than content would look like. Perhaps people would hate it, since it wouldn't officially "ban" kids from seeing adult movies. But I could go for it. And it might finally end some of the angst film makers have about how many cuss words to use in a movie.