UNFORTUNATE BULGING FIGURES: What is the relationship between women’s bodies and morality in Roald Dahl’s The Witches and Matilda?

In this essay I will look at the representation of the female body in Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1983) and Matilda (1988), and how characters’ bodies are judged and coded within the context of feminism at the time of writing. I will also re-examine this coding in light of more recent feminist theories, and look at the intertextual links between Dahl’s work, fairy tale, and contemporary texts for children.

I was drawn to this topic by my interest in the representation of glamorous women in children’s literature, and how they are often characterised as evil or deceitful. This line of thought led me to The Witches, and specifically the Grand High Witch (from here on referred to as GHW). The vivid descriptions of GHW, masked and unmasked, present a telling comment on the performance of femininity, and on women in power. The comparison of depictions of women both with and without power in the primary texts further exemplifies Dahl’s comment on femininity. When placed in the context of the 1980s, a time where married women were increasingly joining the workforce, the second wave of feminism was reaching its end, and a woman Conservative Prime Minister in power for the first time, Dahl’s depictions of powerful women become all the more grotesque.

I also wanted to write about body diversity, as I feel this area of children’s literature is rarely discussed. My research for this essay confirmed my feelings, while also further highlighting that people whose body types stray from the expected (thin) are portrayed as gluttonous or stupid, as Mrs Wormwood and Bruno Jenkins exemplify in the two primary texts. In this essay I look at what little literature there is on the subject of body diversity, as well as looking at psychological studies that examine the impact of the depiction of fat bodies on young children. This was particularly interesting in light of more recent, mainstream movement towards body positivity.

Literature Review

In this section of the essay, I’m looking at the academic writing which informed my argument in the textual analysis. I will look at broader ideas of intertextuality and fairy tale, before looking more closely at the feminism of the 1980s and feminism in children’s literature, and how this may have informed Dahl’s writing.

Intertextuality as a theory has its roots in the work of Kristeva, who coined the term. She ‘recognised that texts can only have meaning because they depend on other texts’ (Wilkie-Stubbs, 1999, p.168). Kristeva was building on the work of Bathkin, who questioned the static meaning of the word ‘text’. His ideas replaced the previous concept of the relationship between reader, writer, and text, which was much more fixed. This relationship becomes more complex in children’s literature, as ‘the writer/reader axis is uniquely positioned in an imbalanced power relationship’ (Wilkie-Stubbs, 1999, p.169). This is because children don’t usually create literature for each other, being instead ‘powerless recipients’ (Wilkie-Stubbs, 1999, p.169) of the work created for them by adults. Dahl tries to re-address this power relationship, not only by shifting or reversing the adult/child power balance in his stories, but by creating intertextual references to fairy tale stories. Dahl ‘uses and abuses folk and fairy tale conventions’ (Cogan Thacker, 2012, p.15), to create a ‘conspiratorial relationship with his child reader’ (Cogan Thacker, 2012, p.15) against adults. Dahl also makes use of nursery rhyme references, especially in The Witches, which further enhances the ‘conspiratorial relationship’ to which Cogan Thacker refers.

More specifically, the women in Dahl’s books seem to have an intertextual relationship with the female figures in Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Little Snow White, among many other now-classic stories. The role of the maternal figure in these stories shifted between editions published between 1812-1857. In the 1812 Hansel and Gretel, for example, it’s their mother who encourages the father to desert the children, but by the 1857 edition the character is instead their stepmother. Williams argues that this switch was made ‘to make the violence perpetuated by the maternal villains in their tales more palatable’ (2010, p.262), with Tatar agreeing that child readers “find the idea of wicked stepmothers easier to tolerate than that of cruel mothers” (2003, p.37), a notion Dahl plays with in his writing.

The wickedness of the stepmother is often amplified in these stories by the absence of the biological mother, usually because she is dead. This angelic mother is often depicted as the antithesis of the stepmother; a comparison which arouses the stepmother’s jealousy. The protagonist, despite having spent more time in the presence of the stepmother than her birth mother, does not emulate her behaviour, which would ‘surely incur severe social criticism, a fate unequivocally represented by the stepmother’s demise’ (Fisher & Silber, 2000, p.124). Rather, the protagonist assumes the passive identity of her mother, dodging any association with her active stepmother. The stepmothers in these stories only have one way of securing power, as illustrated by Fisher & Silber: ‘women who have ambition…can find agency only through fraud and manipulation. Meanwhile, the fairy-tale fathers’ established authority, acquired from maleness alone, assures paternal figures control and status without their having to resort to deception’ (2000, p.127). The tension between women seeming deceitful while seeking power is prevalent in Dahl’s books.

The archetype of the evil stepmother is so pervasive that even today stepmothers find themselves having to dodge the word ‘wicked’: the Grimm Brothers committed this stereotype to print in the nineteenth century, and the Disney adaptations of these Grimm tales have fixed the image of the wicked stepmother in the public imagination. Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), gives Snow White’s stepmother a face that has scared children for over 80 years (fig.1 & 2). The way the stepmother shapeshifts from glamorous queen to witch in this film further supports Fisher and Silber’s point about these women using deception in their pursuit of power.

Disney films continue to make use of Grimm stories, from Cinderella (1950 & 2015) to Tangled (an adaptation of Rapunzel from 2010), and in doing so give faces and voices to the evil stepmothers they depict. These faces help to create a cultural understanding of how a reader can expect evil women to look in comparison to depictions of female heroines.

Dahl was undoubtedly influenced by the Grimm brothers, and even the Disney adaptations, all of which contribute to the cultural context in which he wrote the two primary texts. This context is interesting when viewed through the lens of feminism and the role of women in society and how dramatically it changed over Dahl’s lifetime. He was born two years before women were able to vote in the UK, and died five days before the end of Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister. The Witches was published in 1983, and Matilda in 1988, straddling the mid-80s, and Thatcher’s 11 years in power. The feminism of the 80s was a continuation of the second-wave of feminism, which is often credited as beginning with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), which sold three million copies in three years (McCrum, 2016). The movement lasted into the 1980s, and highlighted that ‘the personal is political’ (a quote popularised by Carol Hanisch in 1970). In the 1970s women fought for ‘the right to be included; [which] became a basic tenet of feminism’ (Paul, 2005, p.123).

While the first wave of feminism almost exclusively focussed on women winning the vote, the second wave concentrated on dismantling the patriarchal society women were living in. However, in both the U.S.A. and the U.K., right-wing governments were elected for nearly all of the 1980s. These conservative societies positioned second-wave feminists as bitter bra-burners (despite there being no evidence of any bra-burning taking place).

It was in this context that the primary texts were published and The Witches in particular, received much feminist backlash. Upon the release of the paperback in 1985, Catherine Itzin wrote an article in the Times Educational Supplement claiming the book ‘encourages the hatred and abuse of women’ (p.13). She also compares the book to Malleus Maleficarum; The Hammer of Witches (1486), a manual on how to hunt and torture witches by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. The Witches was even banned by some libraries due to its perceived misogyny, and in 2013 the American Literary Association ranked it at 22nd on the list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books 1990-1999. Feminist criticism within children’s literature had been on the rise since the early 1970s, and has since changed the face of the art form. Many feminist takes on children’s books criticise the gender stereotypes in popular fairytales, from de Beauvoir’s analysis of the Grimm heroines in The Second Sex (1949), to Warner’s 1994 study on fairy tales. Paul highlights that the recent feminist analysis of fairy tales is ‘important because they provide a context for our own ideological assumptions about gender’ (2005, p.121). This is significant because of Dahl’s intertextual links to fairy tale, and how they reinforce these ideological assumptions.

Feminist analysis of children’s literature focuses on rereading and reclaiming stories, and discussing the relationship women have to each other, or the roles they play within their stories. I haven’t, however, seen many feminist critiques that look explicitly at the representations and descriptions of women’s bodies within children’s literature. Bird’s 1998 essay and Mitchell’s 2012 essay both look at the portrayal and description of the witches, but neither discuss the implications these representations could have on the child readers. Wedwick and Latham’s 2013 essay looks at the portrayal of fat bodies in the Caldecott winners, and highlights the importance of displaying a wide variety of body types to children. They state that ‘the privileging of one ideal body type reinforces the dominant social and cultural ideology, [which] creates an image of power that is constructed through the interaction with the text/author and the reader’ (2013, p.335). Their study is focussed on the (lack of) representation of fat characters in picture books but, in this essay, I want to look at how those representations are coded to children, through both description and illustration. The way body types are associated with morality is significant as ‘consistently, over the age range from 3 to 12 years old, it was found that actual body weight is not related to self-esteem. Instead, it is the perception of self as fat, or the presence of negative feelings about appearance, or the belief that parents have negative feelings about their body size that predicts lower self-esteem in children’ (Cramer & Steinwert, 1998, p.429). This study was conducted in 1998, before the rise of social media, and now the obsession with body-image is more prevalent than ever, with a 2015 study finding that 34% of five-year old girls restrict their diet, with 50% showing ‘some internalization of the thin ideal’ (Damiano et al, p.1166).

This statistic is alarming for many reasons, but particularly because children as young as five don’t tend to have access to social media, so we need to ask ourselves where and how they are absorbing ideologies surrounding body types, and perhaps look to representations of women’s bodies in children’s literature for answers.

Textual Analysis

The two books I have chosen for close analysis are Dahl’s The Witches (1983), and Matilda (1988).

The Witches follows Boy, the nameless narrator. His parents die before the events of the novel, and he’s being raised by his Norwegian grandmother. She warns him that witches look just like real women, and tells him stories of children in Norway being destroyed by witches. She also tells him there’s an annual convention where witches convene and scheme, under the leadership of GHW. Boy stumbles upon this convention whilst on holiday in Bournemouth, and is horrified when the witches remove their disguises and reveal their true selves. He is caught eavesdropping and the witches turn him into a mouse. Boy and Grandmamma eventually triumph by putting the witches’ own serum into their soup and turning all of them into mice too.

Matilda is the story of a five-year old girl-genius. Her parents don’t value academic ability, and are more interested in the television or selling faulty cars for high profits. However her school teacher, Miss Honey, is in awe of her intelligence. At school, Matilda encounters Miss Trunchbull, the bullying headmistress. Matilda discovers she has powers of telekinesis when she puts a newt in Trunchbull’s drink using only her mind. Matilda confides in Honey about her newfound ability. When Matilda visits Honey’s derelict home, Honey discloses that her mother died when she was young, and when her father died by alleged suicide Honey was raised by an abusive aunt. This aunt cheated Honey out of her inheritance, and now lives in Honey’s childhood home. Matilda realises the aunt is Trunchbull. Matilda uses her telekinetic ability to write a message to Trunchbull seemingly from her dead brother, which frightens Trunchbull so much she leaves town forever. Shortly after, Matilda’s parents decide to flee the country because the law has caught up with them. Matilda begs to stay with Honey, who has moved back into her childhood mansion. Matilda’s parents ambivalently let Matilda stay with Honey, and escape.

Both books were written when Dahl was already an established and well-loved children’s author, and both were very successful. Matilda won the Children’s Book Award from the Federation of Children’s Books, an award voted for by child readers, and has since been adapted into a popular film and musical, with another film adaptation currently in production. The Witches has inspired two film adaptations and was included in a BBC list of 100 Books That Shaped the World in 2019. This confirms the status of both books within the canon of children’s literature as classics, heavily influential on multiple generations of children.

In this section of the essay, I will explore the description of these women’s physical appearances in the novels, and compare them with one another. Intertextuality illustrates how Dahl used stereotypes established by the Grimm brothers, but also went on to inspire countless female villains since the publication of the two primary texts. Dahl’s intense popularity, both at the time of publication but also in the years since, has led to immeasurable influence on children’s authors ever since.

Dahl adapts the evil stepmother trope in these books; although neither of the texts feature an ‘evil stepmother’ as such, they both include women with power over children, portrayed as terrifying, or evil, in Trunchbull and GHW, who holds a witch convention under the guise of an RSPCC meeting.

Interestingly, Dahl seems to subvert the actual stepmother element in all but one instance, as both the protagonists have substitute mothers, Honey and Grandmother, who are loving, but Trunchbull is a vicious substitute mother to Honey. There are only two biological mothers in these books, Mrs Wormwood in Matilda and Mrs Jenkins in The Witches, and both are portrayed as neglectful and cruel. These women are both drawn very similarly by Quentin Blake, Dahl’s illustrator (fig. 3 & 4).

Both women are fat, with curled blonde hair. They even seem to be wearing very similar outfits in fig. 3 & 4. It’s not only physical traits they share; they’re both coded as bad mothers. Reynolds describes Mrs Wormwood as ‘neglectful, uncultured and obtuse’ (2011, p.85), and the same can be said for Mrs Jenkins too. They both attempt to desert their children, and while only Mrs Wormwood succeeds, Mrs Jenkins rejects her son and when forced to take him home, Grandmother suggests that she may have killed him.

Their fatness is significant, as Dahl – and Blake – often portray evil characters as overweight, and Dahl specifically passes judgement on Mrs Wormwood’s fatness. In his initial description of her Dahl writes ‘she had one of those unfortunate bulging figures where the flesh appears to be strapped in all around her body to prevent it falling out’ (p.21). Not only does he describe her fatness as ‘unfortunate’, he then goes on to give a grotesque description of her body. The description of Mr Wormwood is nowhere near as visceral, even though he’s as morally corrupt as his wife. The initial description of his looks is that he ‘was a small, ratty-looking man whose front teeth stuck out underneath a thin ratty moustache.’ (p.17). This description isn’t flattering, but it’s not as degrading as that of his wife, and doesn’t take up as much page-space.

Dahl writes many fat characters, and nearly all of them are portrayed as greedy or stupid. Other examples from Dahl’s work include Bruce Bogtrotter in Matilda, a fat child who is publicly humiliated by Trunchbull for eating her cake; Bruno Jenkins in The Witches is lured into a trap by the witches for wanting chocolate; Augustus Gloop gets sucked up a pipe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory while the Oompa Loompa’s sing ‘So Big and Vile! So greedy, foul, and infantile.’ (p.127). Clearly, Dahl’s fatphobia spreads beyond adults to children, but the fat children are not depicted as evil or cruel, whilst the fat adults – particularly women – are. Looking at this in 2021, as body positivity is becoming more mainstream in modern feminism, and body diversity is gradually becoming more present in children’s media, makes the description and images of fat people in Dahl’s books even more distressing.

Mrs Wormwood’s weight is not the only physical attribute Dahl encourages the reader to judge her for. In the same description on p.21 he says her ‘hair was dyed platinum blonde except where you could see the mousy-brown bits growing out from the roots’, and goes on to describe her brown roots as ‘nasty’ (p.50). He repeatedly alludes to her blondeness as a performance in some way, overtly so when he describes it as ‘the same colour as a female-tightrope-walker’s tights in a circus.’ (p.50). Dahl is seemingly unnerved by performances of femininity, and not only with Mrs Wormwood, but also with the witches, who he presents as a ‘caricature of the everyday woman’ (Mitchell, 2012 p.29). Mitchell also wrote that Dahl was making a ‘severe commentary on the falseness of femininity’ (2012, p.29), and I think he is doing the same with Mrs Wormwood. Dahl reduces her to ‘a platinum blonde woman’ (p.88), and describes her make-up, while also consistently insisting that she is ugly, presumably making an ironic comment when he has her tell Miss Honey that ‘[she] chose looks’ (p.92). Dahl is presenting Mrs Wormwood not only as ‘unfortunate’ (p.21), but also as foolishly ignorant of her own ugliness, making her ripe for ridicule as she doesn’t see herself the way the reader is asked to see her; her body positivity is something to be mocked.

The ‘caricature’ Mitchell refers to undoubtedly goes further in The Witches. Their femininity is crucial to their evilness, with Dahl even stating that ‘a witch is always a woman’ on the third page of the book. Butler points out that Dahl tends to ‘[parody] his own intolerance by presenting it in absurdly inflated terms’ (2012, p.4), and the way he plays with power and femininity in the The Witches exemplifies this.

Dahl’s anxieties surrounding assertions of femininity are illustrated even more in the passage where Grandmamma tells Boy how to recognise a witch. She declares that witches are bald, but wear wigs; that they have toeless, square feet, but wear fashionable heels even though they pain them. Boy reacts to this by calling the women ‘indecent…horrid…disgusting’ (p.19). The physical pain the witches go through to look ‘fashionable’ (p.64) is another comment on how the performance of glamorous femininity is coded as dangerous and deceitful. This links back to the glamorous women in Grimm fairy tales, and also in Disney adaptations, where the stereotype of the ‘falsely’ beautiful woman being evil was created.

Dahl further implies femininity as deceitful when GHW unmasks on p.60, in a transformation reminiscent of the queen’s in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). With her woman-mask on, Boy describes her as ‘very pretty…rather stylish’ (p.59), in stark contrast to the description of her face unmasked as ‘fearsome and ghastly…foul and putrid and decayed…as though maggots were working away in [it]’ (p.60). This is further highlighted by the page turn from p.59 to p.61 (fig. 5 & 6).

We can also contrast the descriptions of GHW and Mrs Wormwood with that of Honey, which I found grotesque in a different way. Dahl says she is ‘a mild and quiet person who never raised her voice’, with ‘a lovely pale oval madonna face with blue eyes and her hair was light-brown. Her body was so slim and fragile one got the feeling that if she fell over she would smash into a thousand pieces like a porcelain figure’ (p.60). He also specifies that she is no ‘more than twenty-three or twenty-four’ (p.60).

The first Blake illustrations of Honey on p.62 and p.65 (fig. 7 & 8) also draw attention to her body. She is dressed modestly, with long sleeves and a long skirt, but her breasts are perfectly outlined. Her hands are drawn quite simply, but there is repeatedly enough detail on her breasts for a reader to make out her nipples.

The assertion that Honey is young and made of porcelain ties into the idea that she needs to be rescued, which she later is, by Matilda. This obviously has intertextual links to fairytale, as Guest illustrates -‘characterizations of women according to the logic of “good” and “bad” recapitulates patterns of gender associated with fairy tales, in which female characters are constructed as passive/unconscious or active/narcissistic—good or evil’ (2008, p.247). Honey’s ‘madonna face’ and ‘fragile’ body place her firmly in the passive/unconscious category, and in opposition to the active Trunchbull or narcissistic Mrs Wormwood.

How we perceive the bodies of the women in Matilda is also linked to class. Miss Honey’s storyline is a ‘Cinderella story of abuse’ (Guest, 2008, p.248), and this makes her poverty more palatable to us, in an almost Dickensian way. A British reader is able to forgive her poor lifestyle because when her living conditions are revealed to the reader, Dahl highlights at once that she was actually born into old money. This again has clear intertextual links to fairytale, which often makes use of a noble woman being forced to live in poverty before being restored to her original, higher class, usually through marriage, (for example, Cinderella, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty). Her ‘fragile’ and ‘porcelain’ features (p.60) position the reader to be sympathetic to her plight, and to believe she is only temporarily rendered poor. Mrs Wormwood, however, is not given the same sympathy. She engages in activities such as watching ‘American Soap-Opera’ and wearing ‘heavy make-up’ (p.21). She is more interested in looks over books, and this immediately situates a reader against her, as they themselves are literally holding a book. Dahl establishes a dichotomy in which women who are quiet/enjoy books are higher class, and women who enjoy make-up or television are lower class. There is no suggestion that one could be both, but plenty to imply that one is less worthy than the other.

Matilda transcends the class of her parents by reading classic texts (listed on p.12) and therefore she travels ‘all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village’ (p.15). This gives her a higher cultural capital than her parents allowing her relate to Honey, but Matilda does not fit into the passive/good archetype that Honey does, as it is Matilda who rescues Honey. One wonders how Matilda would be described by Dahl if she were an adult woman, especially as he makes sure to tell us her telekinetic powers are gone by the end of the story, presumably so it’s easier for the reader to imagine a grown-up Matilda as the same type of passive/good that Honey is.

If Mrs Wormwood’s and the witches’ glamour and femininity is coded as danger and deceit, then it makes Trunchbull even more interesting, especially when contrasted with GHW and Grandmamma. Trunchbull is initially described as a ‘gigantic holy terror’ (p.61) and her size is repeatedly referred to throughout the novel. She’s also frequently referred to as an animal; being described as a ‘tigress’ on p.142, and her tone of voice is ‘barking’ (p.146) or ‘roaring’ (p.161). Dahl refers to her as a ‘female’ (p.76), rather than as a woman, even calling her a ‘monster’ (p.61). Her description as not-a-woman is no doubt related to her treatment of children, whom she tortures at her school. We can link this to the witches and to Mrs Wormwood, as another example of non-maternal women being evil, with no exceptions to that rule in either book. Trunchbull certainly represents anxiety about gender in the 1980s, where career women represented a threat to traditional family values. It’s telling that Dahl chooses a woman who has a successful career, and has separate positive achievements as ‘a famous athlete’ (p.76), to be an evil child-torturer. Similarly, in The Witches, it’s a woman in a high-position of power who wants to bring about the downfall of children, and both these women are described as being physically abnormal. These characters have both been associated with Margaret Thatcher, as Bird points out Thatcher ‘was often depicted satirically in media cartoons as possessing the sharp facial attributes of the witch’ (1998, p.126), and in her early career she was known as a milk-snatcher, for cutting state-funded milk for school children; a very Trunchbull move. As Guest points out, ‘like Thatcher…Miss Trunchbull displays a bullying style and opportunistic bent that allow her to seize power at moments of weakness and maintain that hold despite nearly universal unpopularity’ (2008, p.251). The difference is that Dahl, and Blake, depict Trunchbull, and every other woman with power, as grotesque, which must surely influence the child reader into thinking that muscular women, women with bald heads, and powerful women, are dangerous monsters.

There is perhaps only one counterpoint to these female characters, and that is Grandmamma in The Witches. She is described as a fat woman, being called ‘massively wide’ (p.9)., but doesn’t fall into the same tropes as the other fat Dahl characters too. This is perhaps because she is older, or because Dahl based her on his own mother, ‘one of the most important influences’ (1983, p.202) in his life, so she doesn’t fall victim to the same level of caricature. She could also escape the scathing description the other female characters receive, as she is coded in a masculine light. She tricks the police into thinking she’s a man (p.194) and the narrator even acknowledges she is an anomaly – ‘my grandmother was the only grandmother I ever met who smoked cigars’ (p.9). Dahl used the character of Grandmamma to justify the accusations of misogyny made against him by saying he ‘”was not afraid of offending women” because the novel’s nicest character is Grandmamma’ (Treglown, quoted in Mitchell, 2012, p.28). Grandmamma does, however, reinforce the idea that glamorous women are untrustworthy, by being an unglamorous, ‘model of good, loving parenting’ (Mitchell, 2012, p.34).

Conclusion

Dahl’s depiction of women is troubling, especially when located alongside the role of women in 1980s society. He shows the reader that powerful women are evil, and scary (GHW), that women who care about their appearance are vapid and deceitful (Mrs Wormwood), but women who do not manage their appearance toward an expected level of femininity are not women at all, but monsters (Trunchbull).

What does this tell the child reader about women? It tells them, certainly, that there are lots of wrong ways to have a female body, and how to present your femininity. Dahl makes use of intertextual references to fairy tale and nursery rhyme to reinforce the reader’s confidence that these powerful women are evil, and deserve to be punished, and that the passive quiet woman (Honey) is to be admired. The descriptions and illustrations of these women also place them in good/bad, beautiful/grotesque dichotomies, first established in Grimm’s fairy tales over 200 years ago. These pervasive stereotypes reinforce the idea that powerful women need to be kept down.

Since the two primary texts were published in the 1980s there have been a rise of female villains, many of whom make use of the glamour-as-deceit stereotype. Examples include Mrs Coulter from Pullman’s beloved His Dark Materials trilogy, Leonard’s Lucretia Cutter from Beetle Boy, and even the Other Mother in Gaiman’s Coraline, to name just a few. Dahl’s intertextual references to fairy tales further consolidate the relationship between women’s bodies and their morality for a British child reader, as fairy tales have such influence in British culture.

It’s important to question the descriptions of these women, as Dahl’s books clearly hold such influence. His books are considered classics for children, and both the primary texts feature in BookTrust’s list of 100 best books from the past 100 years (2015). This is significant when thinking about the studies referenced that show many children understand, and want to obtain, a body ideal.

By making use of that body ideal in creating his female characters, the relationship Dahl sets up between the women’s bodies and their relationship to power informs the child reader not only how women should look, but also how they’re expected to behave.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Texts:

  • Dahl, R., 1988. Matilda. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
  • Dahl, R., 1983. The Witches. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.

Secondary Texts:

  • Alston, A., & Butler, C., 2012. Roald Dahl. Macmillan Education UK, London.
  • Bbc.co.uk. 2019. 100 Books That Shaped The World. [online] Available at:

<https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/494P41NCbVYHlY319VwGbxp/explore- the-list-of-100-novels-that-shaped-our-world> [Accessed 6 January 2021].

  • de Beauvoir, S., 1949. The Second Sex. London: Jonathan Cape
  • Bird, A.-M., 1998. Women Behaving Badly: Dahl’s Witches Meet the Women of the Eighties. Children’s Literature in Education, 29(3), pp.119–129.
  • Cogan Thacker, D., 2012. Fairy Tale and Anti-Fairy Tale: Roald Dahl and the Telling Power of Stories. In Alston, A., & Butler, C., (ed), 2012. Roald Dahl. Macmillan Education UK, London.
  • Cinderella, 1950. Directed by Clyde Geronimi et al [film]. Distributed by RKO Pictures.
  • Cinderella, 2015. Directed by Kenneth Branagh [film]. Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
  • Cramer, P. & Steinwert, T., 1998. Thin is good, fat is bad: How early does it begin? Journal of applied developmental psychology, 19(3), pp.429–451.
  • Dahl, R., 1964. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. New York City: Puffin Books.
  • Dahl, R., 1961. James and the Giant Peach. New York City: Alfred A Knopf.
  • Damiano, S.R., Paxton, S.J., Wertheim, E.H., McLean, S.A. and Gregg, K.J., 2015. Dietary restraint of 5‐year‐old girls: Associations with internalization of the thin ideal and maternal, media, and peer influences. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 48: 1166-1169. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.22432
  • Fisher, J. & Silber, E., 2000. Good and bad beyond belief: Teaching gender lessons through fairy tales and feminist theory. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 28(3/4), pp.121– 136.
  • Friedan, B., 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York City: W. W. Norton.
  • Gaiman, N., 2002. Coraline. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Grimm, J. and Grimm, W., 1819. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Green World Classics.
  • Guest, K., 2008. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Resistance and Complicity in Matilda, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 246-257.
  • Itzin, C., 1985. Bewitching the Boys. The Times Educational Supplement, pp13.
  • Kramer, H. & Sprenger, J., 1486. Malleus Maleficarum; The Hammer of Witches.

Speyer.

  • Leonard, M. G., 2016. Beetle Boy. Frome; Chicken House.
  • McCrum, R. 2016. The 100 best nonfiction books: No 18 – The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963). The Guardian [online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/30/feminine-mystique-100-best- nonfiction-books-robert-mccrum [Accessed 12th January 2021]
  • Mitchell, J., 2012. A Sort of Mouse-Person: Radicalizing Gender in The Witches. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 23(1), pp.25–39,185.
  • Pullman, P., 1995. Northern Lights. London: Scholastic Children’s Books
  • Reynolds, K., 2011. Children Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937. Directed by David Hand et al [film]. Distributed by RKO Pictures.
  • Tatar, M., 2003. The hard facts of the Grimms’ fairy tales Expanded 2nd., Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Tangled, 2010. Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard [film]. Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
  • Warner, M., 1994. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. London; Chatto & Windus
  • Wedwick, L. & Latham, N., 2013. Socializing Young Readers: A Content Analysis of Body Size Images in Caldecott Medal Winners. Reading horizons, 52(4), pp.333–352.
  • Wilkie-Stubbs, C., 1999. Intertextuality and the Child Reader, in Peter Hunt (ed.) (2005) Understanding Children’s Literature. London and New York: Routledge
  • Williams, C., 2010. Who’s Wicked Now?: The Stepmother as Fairy-Tale Heroine. Marvels & tales, 24(2), pp.255–271.
  • 100 most frequently challenged books: 1990-1999, American Library Association, March 26, 2013. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/decade1999 (Accessed 6th January 2021)
  • 100 best children’s books from the past 100 years, BookTrust, 2015. https://www.booktrust.org.uk/booklists/1/100-best-books-9-11/ (Accessed 8th February 2021)

Understanding Cinderella

(I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella at the Gillian Lynne Theatre last night, this is about that. Sorry if there are any spoilers)

Carrie Hope Fletcher, who plays the titular role, and been swearing blind on her instagram stories that this Cinderella is NOT a ‘I’m not like other girls’ story. She says that yes, Cinderella thinks she’s better than the women surrounding her because she’s not obsessed with her looks, but that the character only degrades these women because they are cruel to her. And that Belleville, the fictional town the show is set in, isn’t real. Belleville isn’t real, to be fair, but it is surely acting as some kind of horrid, misogynistic satire for instagram, Love Island culture, and if it isn’t satirising modern culture in some way, then what’s the point of the adaptation?

Let’s get into it.

Laura Baldwin and Georgina Castle as the stepsisters (photo by Tristram Kenton)

The show starts with the residents of Belleville singing about how they are beautiful, and their town is beautiful. We are invited to laugh at them, to mock and pity them, for living up to a societal standard of beauty. Cinderella appears in the third number in a black dress and chunky boots. There have already been two jokes about eating disorders. Cinderella tells her stepsisters she has a higher IQ than them because they….take selfies? It’s bleak. It’s very bleak.

However I think the real issue is the misunderstanding of what Cinderella is, as a story. I saw an interview with Fletcher and the book-writer, Emerald Fennell, where they say that the original story, and subsequent Disney adaptations, is sexist because Cinderella changes everything about herself to win a man. This is fundamentally wrong, and a premise the show pivots itself around. Cinderella doesn’t change herself for a man in the original story, she doesn’t want to be dressed in rags. She has to wear them because she is living in poverty, as an unpaid servant to her stepmother. She wants to look nice and go to a party, and forget about her problems at home. Meeting the Prince is a bonus, although if you do want to criticise her transformation from servant-girl to ball-goer, you couldn’t certainly acknowledge that she is only able to go to the ball when she is decked out in the class-marker that is a sparkly ball gown. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that two of the most privileged people on earth, Fennell and Lloyd Webber, have totally disregarded the (significant) class element to the story, and instead have misread it as sexism.

(If I wanted to talk about sexism in Cinderella, I would start by looking at the treatment of the stepmother and sisters in the original story, and make them more rounded characters………that doesn’t happen here either).

Cinderella (1950). If putting on a nice dress instead of your work clothes is sexist then lock me up baby.

One of the shows biggest sins comes in its use of the Fairy Godmother, just The Godmother here, no fairy. There is much feminist criticism of fairytales that acknowledge that one of the big anti-feminist themes in the Grimm Brother’s stories is the extreme lack of female collaboration. Women are turned against each other constantly, and rarely work together, or even just speak to each other nicely. Cinderella is one of the few examples that throughout tellings and re-tellings features one woman helping another with not ulterior motive. Sometimes this role is fulfilled by the ghost of Cinderella’s mother, but is often portrayed as the Fairy Godmother who helps her get ready for the ball. In ALW’s adaptation, The Godmother is an evil plastic surgeon, who sings a terrifying number about the price of beauty while injecting Cinderella and stealing the only memento she has of her mother. Wanna talk about sexism Fennell? Why are you taking away one of the few moments of female empowerment anywhere in the Grimm Brothers stories and using it to push your agenda that plastic surgery is inherently bad and people who get it are stupid?

Gloria Onitri as The Godmother (photo by Tristram Kenton)

Ultimately the question here is who wins? Cinderella does (randomly) decide to go to the ball to try and win her prince, but he doesn’t recognise her in her fancy ballgown and snubs her, saying she’s ‘just another bimbo’. When she’s back in her emo-garb they eventually get together, but neither of them acknowledge at any point that the other woman they have constantly belittled are not stupid, or lesser, for not dressing the way Cinderella does. It’s so, so outdated, and damaging, to imply that women who like to invest time and effort into the way they look are inherently oppressed and unenlightened. Cinderella, neither the character or the show, apologises to these women. They are objects of pity, and Cinderella judges them even more harshly than they do her. Any attempt to claim this show as any sort of feminist win is deeply wrong and frankly upsetting. It turns women against each other more than even the original. Also I’m not going to hate those women, they have the coolest clothes and the funniest lines. I’d rather hang out with them than Cinderella, who would probably find me vapid because my make-up is pink and hers is black.

There were loads of little girls in the audience, dressed as Disney’s Cinderella, and I truly shudder at the thought of any of the sexist garbage having a lasting effect on them. Thankfully they all looked hideously bored for the duration. Honestly just watch Ella Enchanted instead. Or watch last week’s Love Island debate about plastic surgery. Actually watch A Cinderella Story because at least Jennifer Coolidge is in that.

Jennifer Coolidge doing frankly iconic work in A Cinderella Story (2004)

The Government Guideline on my body

When I was at my worst Lana Del Rey released Young and Beautiful, and I was singing it in the car when my dad said he didn’t like it. When I asked why he said that he found it arrogant the way she kept describing herself as beautiful. Something changed and I realised it was all a trap.

The government’s announcement of the their £10m campaign to tackle the ‘obesity crisis’ made me feel the same way, not least because it comes hand in hand with their ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme. My 10 stone brother is eating out most nights – he’s very helpful – but it is a luxury clearly not allowed for me, a fat person. Not unless I study the calories listed on the side of the menu.

At youth theatre girls would ask me to pull up my skirt so they could see my thigh gap. I would eat as little as possible between sessions afterwards, in case it went away and they asked to see it again.

Being fat in this country is a deep hot shame that already runs through most things. Not being able to find clothes in shops your friends can, those friends throwing fat as an insult at themselves and each other, people describing you as ‘curvy’ or ‘real’, thinly-cloaked semi-compliments, don’t have to choke out the f-word. Imagining – or feeling – a waiter smirk when you order chips. Stopping pursuing your dreams because fat actors only play the maid, or the sassy single friend.

We went on holiday after our GCSEs and took photos in our bikinis, someone said I looked thin and I thought they must all be making fun of me. I put swimming costumes on in my room and tried to grab at handfuls of flesh on my thighs that weren’t there. They went to the beach and I stayed in the house.

The name of the campaign is ‘Better Health’, which is almost funny. In almost every way I am in the best health of my life. I don’t smoke, I drink rarely, I run three times a week, I don’t cry myself to sleep or stick my fingers down my throat or skip meals any more. In my early 20’s I looked at my teenage body and mourned the prime I didn’t know I was in. The flat stomach and small waist I didn’t believe I had were wasted, I thought. If I were the good little fat girl Boris wants me to be I would run to the gym, to weight watchers, back to the old habits that tried to kill me once already.

When I got better it meant getting fatter, the unhappy clothes I’d bought in Topshop unable to stretch to accommodate. My body dysmorphia did still – and does now – permeate everything, and when I would call myself fat people didn’t rush to disagree with me any more. Instead look uncomfortable, and contradict me by saying I’m beautiful, like the two things can’t exist at the same time.

The price of me liking myself has been many clothes sizes and just I start to find peace with it the government reminds me that to them I am despicable, and that this pandemic is my fault, and that I will die for it. I truly worry about relapsing in the wake of calories on menus, and the adverts telling me to lose weight, to take up less space. This isn’t about my health, it’s another poorly disguised reminder that I don’t look the way that people want me to, and it doesn’t matter at all that this is the best health of my life. The eating disorders and body dysmorphia were more life threatening.

I am in my prime now.

I am young and beautiful.

It’s a trap.

Realistic Representations; Sex Education and Death of England

My friend said the other day that something he struggled with with Netflix’s Sex Education was that it would give misguided hope to teenagers, that people would meet them with open arms and emotional honesty, when, in real life, that’s quite unlikely. I was thinking about that and then I saw Death of England at the National Theatre.

(Disclaimer; I really enjoyed Sex Ed but not D of E, so expect a totally balanced and level critique as normal xxx)

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D of E is about Michael Fletcher, a working class white man from Essex mourning his father, Adam, who has recently died. The signs outside warn of racially offensive language and the show delivers at least on that front. Michael himself is less obvious in his racist attitudes, although certainly not absolved, whereas Adam is a pro-Leave, slur-slinging racist. Michael, himself, seems to hold essentially no views on anything, but occasionally he too babbles racial stereotypes. Adam warns his children repeatedly that there is a “time and a place” for this sort of discussion, knowing that to air those views out in public is not as acceptable as it once was.

And yet here we are.

Sat in the Dorfman.

As Michael airs those views and words out in public.

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Maybe (almost certainly) there’s a point here that I am missing, but I truly don’t understand why we should be airing racist views in plays with no resolution, or implication of some sort. Just because it’s true? I don’t think that’s reason enough. I don’t think it’s lost on the audience that racism still lives on in this country, at least I hope it isn’t, but what do we serve from having a white man tell us his dad was a racist? That’s not to say that I don’t think we should represent racism at all, and it’s odd as a white woman to criticise two black men’s take on racism, but I think if we do represent these ideas, we need to see a kind of justice we don’t always see in real life, otherwise what are we showing it for? What if Adam’s views reaches one person in the audience and enables them to think that that is ok, that donating to Tommy Robinson or watching Oswald Moseley speeches are alright? It’s unlikely, sure, but little by little, the more we give attitudes like that air time, the more we can shift the way people think.

This brings me back to Sex Ed, where, admittedly, the representation perhaps isn’t the most truthful. I don’t know anyone who had a friend who ran a sex therapy clinic at school, I didn’t have a group of well dressed friends sit with me at the back of the bus when I was sexually harassed, but I think there is something to be said for aspirational representation. The issues the teens of Moordale Secondary are resolved through talking, respect, and emotional honesty. Vulnerability wins the day every time. Maybe this isn’t genuine to reality, but if we don’t show teenagers how to do it then how will they learn? Sex Ed also cleverly removes itself from distinct, linear location. Everyone is English but stylistically we are in Northern America although it’s filmed in Wales. There are 21st Century references and technologies but everyone is dressed like it’s 1982. We are removed from a sense of where we are so we are able to focus on what is happening without saying “oh this didn’t happen like this for me” because we are a couple of feet distanced from reality, just enough so we don’t directly apply it on ourselves, therefore deeming it oddly universal.

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apparently I will only be discussing the work of Aimee Lou Woods in 2020

Ultimately I think we need to ask ourselves what kind of representation is actually useful, and is that always the same as the kind of representation that is truthful or authentic? We can illustrate the racist attitudes that are so present in modern society without propping them up, can’t we? Or does to represent always mean to endorse to some extent? How can we rightfully represent racists on stage without, like, having them all guillotined at the end??

(I think maybe we should just have them all guillotined at the end).

Looking to the Future

I saw Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre and then You Stupid Darkness! at the Southwark Playhouse on Saturday and I liked one a lot more than the other.

Both plays are about time. In Vanya, Dr. Astrov says”Looking to the future – who has time for that? That’s a privilege.” (or something to that effect, it was like 4 days ago okay let me paraphrase). To Astrov’s mind, then, Darkness is a total privilege, which it is. Sam Steiner (who I am lucky to call a friend, which I can’t say about Anton Chekhov, just so we all know this is a totally neutral review), looks only forward, but their past – our present – clings to the characters like ivy, and bleeds in through the holes in the walls, covered up my motivational posters.  Rae Smith clearly wants to evoke a similar idea with Vanya, too. Moss grows in the corners of the Serebryakov country estate, anachronistic filing trolleys line the space. Yelena wears low cut jersey dresses in vibrant blues, while everyone else is in period costume…I’m not sure why. I think maybe if you have to have dress characters in H&M and have props from a different era to try and force the audience to consider the play relevant, then maybe you’re patronising them. Maybe you shouldn’t try and square-hole-circle-peg a play into relevance with the production. Maybe you should just…put on a more relevant play.

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ok so looking at this it seems Yelena’s costume gets more modern as the play goes on…….why??? no seriously please tell me why

(can you tell which play I like better yet?)

You could say about either plays that not much happens. The office floods, the doctor draws a map, the kettle breaks, a woman plays the piano, and there is substance and depth in these moments from both these plays, but I don’t want to write about Vanya, because you’ve all heard it before, so I’m just going to talk about Darkness, because it’s MY blog and I SAY SO!! When I described this play to my parents when I got home they didn’t seem thrilled. “No” I yelled, “there’s an amazing moment where he reads a personal statement and can’t crack a back!!! It’s not a phase Mum it’s the real me!!” But seriously, I don’t know how Sam does this. The characters are barely there, they are drawn in pencil, like the Snoopy characters on Joey’s lunchbox, but they are so vivid. This is also down to four expert, and heartwarming/breaking performances. Jenni Haitland pulled one face and she suddenly reminded me so much of my sister, Andrew Finnigan nibbled his lip like my brother used to when he was younger. There are no huge moments, really, no big actor-y look-at-my-wingspan monologues, but quiet simmering moments constantly. Moments of buttery generosity and abject cruelty slip in and out, hand in hand with eachother. The characters wound each other, just slightly, and then forgive each other with a cup of tea, or a bleary smile. The lights go out, they came back on, you light a candle, you curse the darkness anyway.

There are definitely some big actor-y moments in Vanya. I found the adaption, as a whole, to be great. Connor McPherson does a fab job of making the characters sound like people we hear day-to-day, without making it really cringe or seem instantly dated. HOWEVER, the last monologue is completely bizarre. To be fair, I saw a preview, so maybe this will improve, but basically Sonya has a big soapy monologue which has all the buzzwords in it, I can’t really remember what it was, but it was like “the MERCY of the WORKERS shall lead us to SALVATION and PEACE everlasting and we shall REST in the SERENITY of the years of the WORK and the GLORY!!!!”(told you this would be a totally neutral review). This seems at total odds with the slightness of parts of the play – there’s a beautiful moment when Yelena confesses her love for Astrov with total flippance. Other characters are played with much broader strokes, swathes of light then swathes of dark, and unlike Darkness, these moments don’t move together, they happen in spite of each other. There’s odd contradictions throughout Vanya, the set is naturalistic, bar 2 fire extinguishers and fire buckets, and a fire exit sign. Why these exist again, I couldn’t tell you, I assumed something would catch fire and was disappointed when it didn’t. Is this just a big Chekhov’s gun joke? Maybe it’s too suggest that this is a space where risk is likely, danger is at the edges, but it itsn’t really. Interestingly in Darkness, where there really is disaster behind the door, we are told the room we are in is safe immediately, when Angie bursts the door open, her face obscured by a gas mask, only for her to take it off at once. This is a safe space, this tells us, you can breathe here.

Ali Wright

It’s difficult, I think, when you review an old play in a new production. You don’t really review the writing, because everyone knows that bit. You discuss the actors, the production, but then when you review a new play in a new production it’s hard not to talk only about the writing. So, if I am honest, I don’t like Chekhov’s writing (lol). It’s never done anything for me, which I do not understand, because everything I disliked in Vanya, are the same things I liked in Darkness. Nothing much happens, there’s no massive climax, it’s largely about how the characters interact with each other. I suppose the difference in these productions, and indeed in the plays,  is a testament to how vital it is to earn the moments, to make the small seem big. I think there also has to be a difference because one is the past which is looking forward to the future which is actually our present, and sort of smugly going “oh look, Chekhov knew you were going to fuck it up and he tried to warn you via Astrov and his trees”, whereas the other is the future looking back at the past, actually our present and saying “everything will be shit, like they’re telling you, but mostly it will be the same. Twins will be born, people will take overdoses or apply to uni and try to be kind to each other”.

I’m just saying I know which I prefer.

 

Little Women

It shouldn’t have, but the vibrancy of Little Women took me completely by surprise. In the corners and the backgrounds of every scene there are lives and lines brimming over and bleeding into each other. The sisters talk over each other constantly, interrupting but not stopping for one another. When Laurie first enters the March home he looked as surprised as I felt by the noise, the blur of sound coming from all angles.

This tumbling way of speaking carries on into the physicality of the film too, and I think what stayed with me most after it had finished was the way the characters touch, hold, and brawl with each other. Heads in laps, arms across shoulders, hair grazing eyelashes, the romance of it all is astounding, and so stark when it isn’t there. Saoirse Ronan didn’t wear a corset to play Jo, and this allows her a freedom of movement specialised to only her. A girl moving like a boy, running and breathing out as much as she can. A striking moment of touch happens when Amy set fire to Jo’s book, so Jo promptly wrestles her to the ground. My sister has never set alight to any of my belongings (as far as I know) but we have definitely tackled each other to the ground before, but it’s still so refreshing to see this kind of physicality between two women, especially in a period film. This brawl is counter-acted minutes later, in a scene where Amy falls through an icy pond and Jo wrestles to pull her from the water. The same struggle, the opposite emotion, barely 24 hours later within the timeline of the film. And that’s what siblings are like, constant pushing away and then tugging back again.

This physicality and language is largely reserved for the March family, making the moments where they include outsiders poignant and notable. I could write for days about the way Jo and Laurie interact with each other, the missed eye contact, the punched arms, the swapped waistcoats, but I actually think I would explode. In this fantastic scene, the March girls stagger through the Laurence house like a tornado, like all the windows being open at once, a constant jumble of colour and shouts. When they’re gone the men stand there, almost as far apart from each other as they can be, the space reclaimed for silent masculinity again, but they all look as though they’ve taken their first deep breath in a while.

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Colour is another enormous element to this film. The past happens in egg-yolky yellow, the present in wake-up blues. There’s a moment towards the end where the past becomes the present at last, but I don’t know where it is, because I suddenly realised the colours weren’t different any more, they had seamlessly blended into something in-between. Colour goes beyond just denoting passages in time, and creates and tone aand atmosphere for locations, too; the March home is warm and wooden and fiery, the Laurence’s slatey and dark. The girls all have their own colour too, although it’s not so intense that they’re like Powerpuff Girls, but it’s tangible within a 5 woman household.

I find Greta Gerwig….pretty unbelievable. In many ways this film is the opposite to her directorial/writing debut Ladybird, although it still ached through me the same. Ladybird focused on one central relationship, Little Women holds dozens of dynamics, timelines, plots, and relationships and it manages to triumphs them all. Each character has some kind of arc across two different timelines, and these timelines interweave beauitfully, smoothly, and tragically. There is a scene where Jo comes down the stairs, first in the past, and then in the present, and the parallel……made me cry for 15 years. Ladybird was a detailed look at one life in detail, and Gerwig made something close to her own experience as a teenager, whereas here she goes far beyond that, without losing any of the nuance. If Ladybird was a microcosm, Little Women feels like a whole community.

The last surprise for me was Florence Pugh’s Amy. The cast is all stellar, I truly can’t imagine it any other way, but the characterisation of Amy is what I found to be most different from what I’d seen/read before. I have always considered Amy the villain. In every adaptation and even in the original text I could only see Amy as the spoilt one who existed only to take things from Jo. I don’t know if maybe I’m just older and wiser and selfless and saintly now, but in this film it was completely different. Amy never got anything that Jo didn’t have first. Being the third of four sisters means that things don’t reach you until later, a theme especially important in the climax of the film, when no-one shares some pretty big news with her while she’s away in Europe. Everything Amy ends up with Jo has touched first and discarded…which would make me a bit spoilt about the things I ended up with too.

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I could go on and on and on about this film. About the stupid in-jokes they have, about the dancing, about it all, but I would never stop. There are obviously weaker elements, too. I think perhaps the end meanders too much, like Gerwig couldn’t fin the right foot-hold to end on, but ultimately I think I was grateful because I needed some space from the inner, devastating scenes.

Anyway, I loved it. Go see it. Take me with you.

Fleabag 2k19

“my sister is probably an anorexic but clothes look great on her” Fleabag jokes, her tongue practically burrowing through her cheek.

I cringe in my £50 grand circle seat at Wyndham’s, so narrow I had to squeeze my wide bum into it.

It’s not just fat people who face the brunt of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s acidic jokes. She laughs wide-mouthed, skimming over topics like rape, death, suicide, anything and everything she can get her hands on.

And the audience lap it up. I’ve never seen a crowd be so on side from the off than here, to almost bizarre levels. There was actually applause BEFORE she said “massive arsehole”. I think she could have said anything and someone would have honked with laughter about it.

And that’s the genius of it, really. Waller-Bridge has written an anti-hero, and every time we start to hate her she reminds us how flawed she is, how sad, how vulnerable, and we forgive her all over again. If you take offence to the jokes then maybe you’re supposed to!! She’s a charming anti-hero!!! Perhaps, however, this is where the difference between 2013 fringe-Fleabag and 2019 Wyndham-Fleabag start to emerge. How brave can we find these things coming from this upper-class white woman in this day and age? It must be harder to sympathise now than it was then, and while Fleabag’s experience with loss and love help to explain why she behaves the way she does, I’m not sure it excuses it any more. When she makes jokes about fat men, about rape, about assault the audience are invited to laugh along with her, and there was no point where we told that it was wrong to.

(It’s also hard to sympathise when you pay 50 quid to sit nearly 10 miles away from a 70 minute show but ANYWAY)

 

Sex is the supporting character of the show, and almost every story leads us back there, and she definitely isn’t afraid to talk about sex in a brutal and honest way. It’s an odd thing, however, because in 2013, Fleabag changed the game a bit in terms of one women shows and the way women talk about sex, but then, almost as a result of that, media has become much more interested in these stories and now there are more exciting things being made on a similar premise and Fleabag has almost been evolved out of the market it helped establish. It’s not a rare thing now for a able-bodied cis-woman to be talking about sex, but it was more so then.

A very cynical part of me also questions this addiction and the fantasy it fulfills. Surely a woman being addicted to sex is engaging with a voyeuristic male audience in some way. Threesomes!!! Blowjobs!!! Anal!!! Very little is said about Fleabag’s own pleasure, and I don’t think she ever talks about her orgasming and only about whether the man has. But here, again, we fall into tricky territory because maybe that’s the point; she’s flawed, she’s punishing herself, she doesn’t want to enjoy herself etc. I don’t know, and I don’t think we ever will, but her endless discussion of sex and how she will go to almost any length to please the man she’s fucking is surely some Amy-Dunne-Cool-Girl thing.

I also think, ultimately and basely, the TV programme is better. The moments are more earned, her relationships are more thoroughly explored, and we get a broader sense of who she is outside of sex-and-jokes. Waller-Bridge is of course a highly-skilled performer, but I personally find her a bit cold, and supporting actors help bring more warmth to the story.

On the whole I felt very distant from it, both literally and figuratively. It was like I was staring into 2013 from where I was sat, and while I can’t deny the cultural impact the show has had for women is no doubt for the better, I think it’s time to move on and make way for more exciting female led narratives in the West End pls.

But cheaper pls.

 

 

 

 

the water

right on twitter there have been lots of posts about the use of water in recent coming of age films so I’ve decided that just as everyone is over it I’m going to blog about it.

It represents a lot, and is a gr8 tool (can you BELIEVE the starts of these paragraphs……..me neither!). Let’s start with Lady Bird, like always. The pool scene in Lady Bird is brief, but says a lot. Jenna and Lady Bird are in the pool at Jenna’s house. Jenna is in a classic early noughties two piece, Lady Bird in a dark swimsuit with a necklace on. ALREADY we can tell so much about them from a screenshot alone. For starters, Jenna is affluent enough to have a pool, and pools are a status symbol (see also; The Great Gatsby). Lady Bird is wearing a necklace, which makes perfect sense. She needs something on her as a mark of who she is, proof that she’s trying to be something. It also maybe suggests that the jewellery might not have cost much if she’s wearing it in a pool, but clearly it means something to her that she keeps it on. It’s also worth noting that she’s covering her body up, while Jenna is showing more. You can tell a lot about someone by how they dress by  a pool and that is  FACT.

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This brings us to our next point. Revelation. Swimming as a teen is fucking horrid and if you can’t relate let’s swap self esteem pls. It feels like there’s nothing more vulnerable than taking almost all your clothes off and walking about in a public place. You feel like one big open wound. Even if you have shaved/waxed, sod’s law is you probably have razor burn, making it looks like you definitely have some kind of STI!!! This kind of anxiety is captured beautifully in Eighth Grade, because Eighth Grade captures everything beautifuly. The underscoring of this scene implies huge drama, like a big battle scene, which it sort of is. Pools represent so much that we try to avoid as teens. Nakedness, mess, vulnerability. Kayla looks around at her flat-stomached peers and wraps her arms around her belly, mascara circling under her eyes. The element of masks slipping underwater is also gd. Straightened hair frizzes, make up runs and we are revealed further and further.

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The flipside to this, of course, is that you do get to see other people with their kit off. Take the poolside scenes in Call Me By Your Name. It’s the first time Elio and Oliver can look at each other’s bodies, and they grab glances while the other is reading a book, or swimming laps, and it’s not unacceptable or particularly noticeable. Oliver rolls off the edge where he’s laying after looking at Elio; becoming submerged.

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Submersion is another big thing. Look at Ferris Buller’s Day Off, or The Descendants. The deepness of the water provides a sense of privacy, as well as a gr8 metaphor for how the characters are sinking, deep into their own problems etc. There’s also the sense of being lost, or floundering and someone saving you, like Ferris does for Cameron. The pool signifies Cameron’s anxiety, which he sinks into and sits a the bottom like a stone, until Ferris pulls him back up again, as he always does.

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It’s not an accident that characters often have huge personal revelations in water scenes. If you look at Booksmart, Amy swims through a pool happily and it’s a clear metaphor for her sexuality, and for her life, rly. She is happy swimming through legs, unnoticed, a different angle to everyone around her. The chaos of the party is muffled. Her hair billows around her, her eyes are open in the stinging chlorine because she is searching for something. When she sees Ryan making out with Nick she abruptly comes up the surface and her hair is flattened against her, slicked down against her head, making her face stand out. The noises that were muffled under the water are deafening, and the bubble she was in has burst. The rules of physics are different underwater (well done me), we become lighter.

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The sense of paradise, of idyllic buoyancy separate totally from reality on dry land is also prevalent. For example the ICONIC Naomi/Emily swimming scene from Skins. This time they’re in a lake/pond and they go swimming. They obviously strip off and it’s all very saucy (see paragraph about getting kit off), but then afterwards there’s a sense of intimacy, of getting warm again next to the water, like an oasis. When their hair has dried Naomi runs off.

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To conclude, water is a great metaphor. It can represent so much of what we go through as teenagers; feeling lost, vulnerable, naked, hidden, different, horny, submerged. Things that go down poolside are a microcosm of what’s going on inside (omg that sentence actually kill me LMAO).

It chokes us, makes us, floats us, sinks us, hides us, reveals us. We need to live and it can wash us away.

P.S. let’s start building swimming pools in theatres!!!!!!!!!

P.P.S. there are loads more coming of age films that I haven’t seen that feature swimming/pools/water so sorry!!!

 

stereotyping in mean girls and booksmart

The iconic moment, really, in Mean Girls, is when Cady realises that calling another girl ugly won’t make her pretty, calling a girl fat won’t make her thin etc. It comes about 15 minutes before the end of the film, and although the characters decide to tolerate eachother’s differences, they do so apart. Regina gets super into lacrosse, Cady into math, and Janis….dates Kevin G.

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the limit does not exist!!!!!!

A similar moment happens in Booksmart, but this time its about 10 minutes into the film. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) overhears a conversation where her peers are rinsing her for being all about school, so she tries to put them in their place by telling them that that she at least is going to go to a good college, at which point they all reveal that they too are going to equally good schools. The rest of the film essentially deals with Molly coming to terms with the fact that these people are all more than two things at once. Her teacher is really cool but also at least a little creepy. Gigi is not just a crazy party girl, she’s a troubled and loyal person. Jared wants to design airplanes so that he can…..PRODUCE NEW MUSICALS (marry me Jared xoxo). Even Molly’s best friend Amy turns out to be hiding a huge piece of information from her.

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Mean Girls never gets this far. It asks us to accept that we are all different, but not celebrate it, or look for reasons we are the same. When Molly gets into the car with Annabelle (or Triple A) towards the end of the film, and they realise that they’ve both fallen prey to harsh stereotypes, and low-key bond over it, despite those stereotypes being wildly different. They also both, essentially, live up to those stereotypes, and flourish in them, to a certain extent. Annabelle gets loads of dick, and loves it, but hates the nickname she’s stuck with. Molly is school-obsessed, but resents the fact she missed out on the parties because of it. Stereotypes perform a large part of our identity as teenagers because they give us something to belong to, a group of people with the same labels. Booksmart deals beautifully with what you can lose when not only other people stop questioning the label that you’ve got, but you do as well.

The film also looks at the damage that assumptions and cliches can have on relationships. For example Amy assumes that Ryan is into women as well initially because of how she looks, but then at Nick’s party Ryan’s behaviour seems to cement into Amy’s mind that Ryan must like girls too. This assumption leads to the heart-breaking moment in the pool when Amy clocks that Ryan is making out with a guy. Molly also worries that nothing will come of her crush on Nick because he’s cooler than her, but once she talks to him she gets to grip with their mutual interests, something she could have done sooner had she not written him off.

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In Mean Girls it feels as though the stereotypes are just re-shuffled; Cady the mathlete, Regina the Jock, and that eventually we will come full circle again, though perhaps this is the point. Similarly to Booksmart, the characters define themselves and become devoted to the group or lifestyle they are a part of, and any cross-contamination within the groups is considered confusing at best, and betrayal at worst, (see also; “Stick to the Status Quo”, High School Musical). In Booksmart, however, the characters start to break down the boxes they’re in and start to realise they’re all people like each other, and there’s hope that they will go to the next stages of life less willing to brand people based off of one facet of their personalities. In Mean Girls they shake off their old labels, only to be given new ones.

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Also, crucially, I don’t want to paint Mean Girls as bad and Booksmart as good, they both obviously have good and bad points. They also aren’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last, films to look at teenage stereotyping. Look at Breakfast Club or Heathers or Little Women. I think recently, however, there has been a lean towards teen films to be about the individual and less about the hierarchy, if you look at Lady Bird or Eighth Grade (which I’m always doing). But these two films bookend a big era in films in an interesting way, and the stereotypes knocked down in Booksmart were not even properly formed when Mean Girls came out, because that film played such a part in forming them.

Coding and Catharsis; how can we represent self harm in theatre?

In recent years I’ve been seeing more and more examples of self harm in theatre. Sometimes we are shown someone actually self harming, sometimes it’s referred to but unseen, and sometimes they just paint red stripes on actor’s arms, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done well.

A way I’ve seen it done a couple of times is in Shakespeare, which is, in my opinion, the worst. There’s not really allusion to it in the script, so they use red cutting marks on the arms of actors to suggest a deeper issue, to flesh out their female characters and make them seem ‘troubled’ or ‘modern’. For example, in Simon Godwin’s 2016 theatre Ophelia came on for the ‘mad song’ scene with scars painted on all up her arms, and I immediately walked out the theatre. Not only does equate self harm with  suicide, but also does not discuss the complex issue of self harm in any kind of detail, because it’s not in the text. A similar example was in Nicholas Hytner’s 2017 Julius Caesar, when Portia showed Brutus scars all up her arms while she is in distress. I’m told this is actually alluded to in the text, but I wouldn’t know, because, again, I immediately walked out.

(Also, while we are talking about sensitivity, can we discuss the Bridge’s choice to tweet this? WHAT????????????)

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Ben Whishaw and Leaphia Darko in Julius Caear

There is nothing delicate, or sensitive about this kind of representation. It’s not discussed, or unpicked, or even really held. It’s using people’s problems as a symbol, without having to go into the psyche of a character at all, and without considering how audiences might feel when being confronted very triggering imagery.

A more modern example was in Florian Zeller’s The Son at the Kiln Theatre. This play actually discusses depression and self harm as the core theme, and so is more sensitive in it’s approach. Initially I was crazy-impressed, because instead of showing Nicolas cutting himself (as they mention that he does), they show him drawing on white walls with black marker, which to me is quite an effective symbol, without having to show me red paint on clean skin. ALAS, they go on to show us violent, angry red marks all up Laurie Kynaston’s arms, which maybe is fair? It’s a play talking about how we care for those we love who want to hurt themselves, but must we show the evidence, without regard for how upsetting it could be for some?

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Laurie Kynaston in The Son

Speaking from personal experience, I find it really uncomfortable being confronted with actors who have painted on self harm marks. It makes me angry thinking of the years I spent getting changed for P.E. in toilet stalls, wearing long sleeved shirts all summer, taking a cardigan wherever I went so people wouldn’t see my own desperate cuts, and these actors just wash off the paint after a show and walk around in their t-shirts. I have scars that will never fade, but I wear them now, and it’s fine, but the red paint feels an appropriation of sorts, a generalisation, a code.

I also think it’s about what the play is trying to symbolise with the cuts, because it’s nearly always cuts, and the effect it has, because I’ve never seen a play featuring self harm that doesn’t also feature suicide, but self harm often has no link to suicide. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen it done well. I’ve never seen a portrayal of self harm on stage that felt realistic, or cathartic. The type of relief you feel when you realise something is very deftly understanding, discussing, and holding an experience you can relate to, I’ve never felt that about this particular issue. Caroline Horton’s discussion of anorexia in Mess gave me that feeling, as did People, Places and Things. The closest depiction of self harm I’ve seen that resonated with me in a good way is in Original Death Rabbit, where the self harm comes from a total lack of self care; she hates herself so much that she won’t clean, change, and lashes out as an anonymous twitter troll. It felt dangerously real, without being graphic or literal.

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So this is basically a plea. Please don’t paint self harm scars on your actors unless you truly, truly feel it is justified. Please trigger warn self harm both online and in the theatre on signs, which I have only seen once, at the National Theatre’s Downstate. 

Also, just don’t use it if it’s not explicit in the text, I don’t think that can ever be done sensitively.

Duh.