March 31, 2022 · 12:11 pm
When you hear the phrase universal themes, what comes to mind? This is a topic that’s been on my brain recently, in part due to my literary research and in part due to something I came across while I was procrastinating my literary research. Pixar’s new movie, Turning Red, dropped on Disney+ this month and has naturally been in the news and in pop culture discussion. CinemaBlend’s managing director Sean O’Connell sparked quite a bit of conversation when, in an early review, he criticised the movie for being “unrelatable”. This review has since been deleted, but its essence is helpfully preserved by articles like this one:
“I recognized the humor in the film, but connected with none of it. By rooting ‘Turning Red’ very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for [director] Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members,” O’Connell wrote in the since-pulled review. “Which is fine — but also, a tad limiting in its scope.”
O’Connell also called the movie “exhausting” because he couldn’t connect with it: “Some Pixar movies are made for a universal audience. Turning Red is not”.
Now, I’m not here today to take apart O’Connell and his argument—the Internet at large has already done that plenty. Instead, I want to use this review as a jumping-off point to unpack this idea of a “universal narrative” in kids’ media. Because in his professionally-published knee-jerk reactions to this film, O’Connell has usefully highlighted some dominant, persistent perceptions at the heart of discussions about diverse media. These are:
- Stories that step beyond the mainstream “universal” perspective are “niche” and “limited in scope”
- Stories that step beyond the mainstream “universal” perspective must be educational to close this gap
I’ll be using a lot of “air quotes” (though not scare quotes, I hope) in this post because I really want to dig into the constructed nature of these ideas. The idea of a “universal narrative”, or, to be even more specific, the idea of a universal coming-of-age narrative or universal story about childhood, is not something that formed in a vacuum. While the notion of universal tropes or experiences that every viewer can relate to might not sound like anything insidious—surely it sounds inclusive!—it’s one that often ends up framing and stifling conversations about storytelling. When O’Connell talks about universality, what is he picturing? Maybe more to the point, what is he not picturing? And what can his expectations tell us about broader trends in storytelling and reader reception?
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January 16, 2014 · 12:10 am
Who are you people? Are you the heroes of this movie? Why do you have the same face??
Kids’ movies are a formative influence. Anyone can tell you that. Everyone has that one movie they watched to death when they were young, practically memorising the entire script and score, absorbing the main characters into their personality and wearing down the video tapes until they caught fire. Among other things, this is why it’s so important to create good role models (for girls and boys alike) and powerful stories within these movies, especially if you’re a big influential studio like Disney, who lately has a weird habit of simultaneously capitalising on and denying the existence of their star female characters.
Mulan was my movie and Disney heroine of choice. Conventional princesses were all very well, but I never really connected with them, or superficially admired their tales that much. I looked up to Mulan, not only for being clever and strong and being able to handle a cool sword but because I watched it with my dad a lot, and I think on some level I sort of saw us in the story. Given his Chinese linguistics and history background and involvement in martial arts, I think he enjoyed it too, more than other Disney movies he was, as a gracious parent, inevitably forced to watch ad nauseum. And Mulan deeply admires and loves her father, then goes and protects him like a total boss, and young me really dug that. But, on a less personal level, I think I just enjoyed Mulan because dad-plot or not it was a gosh-darn girl power story, about her and how much ass she kicked.
I could go on forever about the infinite kickassery of this movie and Mulan herself and in doing so revert to my eight-year-old self, but I want to come back to the business of titles: immediately it’s evident, from looking at it, that this story is about Mulan. As well as driving it, it belongs to her, with her name emblazoned on everything and brought up in glowing full-screen glory in the opening credits. There was no question anywhere, this was a film about a kickass lady and Disney was not afraid to tell anyone that. Continue reading →
November 21, 2013 · 12:40 am
Ever notice that 99% of the mothers in kid’s movies are dead?
There are reasons for this, I guess—it eases the viewership into a lesson about loss and life, opens the gates for evil stepmothers to stroll in and start wreaking havoc and kind of makes sense given the medieval setting of a lot of the fairy tale-based ones, where surviving past childbirth was rare and only the beginning of your troubles. And, of course, stories about the relationship between female characters are no good and totally don’t sell, so you may as well shuffle off as many as you can to begin with.
Killing off or removing the traditionally steadfast and secure emotional rock of the mother figure is the starting block of plots all over the spectrum, from sitcoms to high dramas. It leads the protagonist, in whatever form, down the “leaving the nest” part of their coming of age story as they have independence thrust upon them, or are caught up in the mess ensuing from their loss (because the mother is often expressed as the sympathetic and wise one who knows how to handle all that mushy stuff, and without her naturally the family falls into disarray. Because of you know, like, motherly reasons. It’s in the female’s hardwiring).
Though it’s not just a case of orphan heroes being the best because fathers are still around, more often than not, creating fun emotional subplots all throughout children’s movies no matter what they’re about. The absence of the mother gets the father-son bonding plotline going—like, off the top of my head, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (widowed father doesn’t understand his son’s dreams to be an inventor, if only Mom were here), Super 8 (widowed father doesn’t understand his son’s artistic passions and his claims the town has an escaped military alien in it, if only Mom were here), How To Train Your Dragon (widowed father doesn’t understand his son’s meek nerdy inability to kill fire-breathing monsters, if only… you get the gosh darn picture).
“Patriarchy, Merida. Patriarchy”
Which is all well and good, but after a while you get used to the formula and wonder, if only for curiosity’s sake, where on earth the genderflipped version is. Continue reading →
July 11, 2013 · 12:33 am
You all know the story—a world-innocent but slightly bored peasant boy gets swept into an adventure to save his people. How’s he going to do it? He’s just an everyman, after all, the most relatable archetype out there, that of the well-meaning but gormless youth. However he might protest, however, he really has little to no say in it—he has to go on the adventure and defeat this evil, because destiny dictates he’s the only one who can.
What am I talking about here? Star Wars? The Arthurian legends? Buffy the Vampire Slayer? It doesn’t matter. The idea of the fated hero is older than print, present in everything from Greek theatre to modern sitcoms. But the question that I pose to you is thus: is the concept a bit worn out?
After all, the thing about destiny is that you know what’s going to happen. As if the definition wasn’t enough, we have the added bonus that a lot of these plots march along a certain previously laid-out path, that of The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell was the first to nut this out in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and if you follow your nose you’ll see it guiding adventurers all across the spectrum of literature.
It starts with our ordinary hero, our relatable everydude, in their ordinary home town, somewhat dissatisfied with their predictable life. Suddenly, in crashes some sort of bizarre happenstance that ignites the plot. Maybe a mysterious girl falls from the sky, or maybe they find a hidden treasure, or maybe some sort of mystical, pun-making wizard appears and calls them to adventure.
The Hero can’t just rush off into the story, however—for whatever reason, be it their loyalty to home or their honour or their wobbly knees, they must refuse the call. In spite of this, they’re going to get roped into the fray anyway, like in the aforementioned and formula-perfect Star Wars, where Obi Wan points out that Luke’s really got nothing better to do than come with him and face the adventure he was born for since his house and family are now on fire.
Does destiny really say I have to carry your Muppet ass around?
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Filed under Archetypes and Genre
Tagged as A Song of Ice and Fire, Brave, destiny, Fate franchise, Fate/Stay Night, Fate/Zero, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Joseph Campbell, Pixar, Star Wars, The Hero's Journey, The Three Doors