Monthly Archives: April 2015

Stockholm Syndrome and The Devil Wears Prada, Part 2

Part 1 here

Trigger warning; discussion of abuse continues

Also I absolutely can’t make the points I’m making without spoiling the crap out of the end, so beware.

In the movie, Andy is repeatedly described as “losing her soul.” Most fans of the movie who I have talked to have accepted that interpretation, but I’ve also known of a few who disagree.  It’s actually quite difficult to name things Andy does that are truly wrong. There is nothing wrong with either developing an interest in fashion, or trying to well at a difficult, demanding job. Stealing an unpublished manuscript is a crime, but given how huge Harry Potter is and that the twins would most likely get their own hardcover copy when the real one comes out, along with tons of merchandise, it is a victimless crime. She feels somewhat attracted to a cute writer who flirts with her, while she’s dating somebody else, but nothing happens until she and her boyfriend split up. In fact, there is only one situation where Andy does anything I can even begin to consider wrong, and its done under extreme coercion.

At one point, Andy’s coworker Emily is sick. Unlike any reasonable boss in the world, Miranda does not send Emily home. In fact, Emily is supposed to accompany Miranda to a gala, where her primary duty will be to remind Miranda of the names of each and every guest. See, Miranda doesn’t want to have to deal with the embarrassment and awkwardness of “sorry, I forgot your name,” but neither does she want to go to the trouble of learning who her own guests are. Instead Emily has to not only work but work late into the night, while she is coughing and sneezing and clinging to tissues like they’re life preservers, or perhaps a talisman of protection against people like Miranda. That’s bad but not as bad as it gets. Miranda tells Andy that even though she had the night off, she has to come to the gala as a backup for Emily. Andy has to spend the rest of the afternoon learning as many names and faces as she can. But you know, sending Emily home entirely and making do with just Andy would be unthinkable.

It's like having Huginn and Muninn, except they are telling me things that I'm perfectly capable of figuring out myself, and one of them should be home.
It’s like Huginn and Muninn, except they are telling me things I’m fully capable of learning myself, and one of them should be home.

During the night, Emily makes one mistake, and Andy covers for her. Miranda’s response is to kick Emily off of fashion week in Paris, in favor of Andy.

This is a big deal because, like everyone else, Emily hates working for Miranda. She experiences daily humiliations, terrifyingly high expectations and verbal abuse. Emily puts up with it because fashion genuinely is her dream. The week in Paris, for Emily, makes all the shit she deals with worth it. Think of how Hogwarts gave Harry the ability to deal with the Dursleys all summer, and imagine that Hogwarts only lasted a week. That’s Paris for Emily.

Miranda makes it clear that if Andy turns down the Paris job, she will get that whole “fired with an incendiary reference” thing that everyone is so scared of.

This whole dialog hinges on a weird contradiction. On the one hand, Miranda claims this isn’t a personal vendetta against Emily, nor is it a way to maintain her image as terrifying and capricious, and thus motivate everyone to continue working themselves to death. Oh no, this is because it is just so important to Miranda that she have the best people on her Paris team, and Andy, not Emily, is the best. And yet, while Andy is so much better than Emily that she is indispensable on the Paris trip, she is not also so much better that it would be stupid to fire her over turning down one opportunity. Its impossible to know what exactly Miranda’s game here is, but whatever it is, my mean-spirited bullshit meter is flashing red.

Andy accepts the job, even though it breaks Emily’s heart, and doing so clearly hurts Andy as well. For the record, coercing somebody into doing something abusive for you is also abuse. Andy is being made an accomplice here, but she is also being victimized. However, character after character holds Andy responsible for what happens, including Miranda.

In a beautiful ironic twist, though, it’s Miranda’s insistence that Andy had a choice that breaks the spell. Andy suddenly decides this career path is no longer worth it, if the price is becoming somebody like Miranda. She ditches her abuser in the middle of the Paris, and everybody in the audience cheers.

As so often happens after abuse, all the worst predictions about what would happen if Andy leaves do not come true. Andy finds a job with a small newspaper, doing the kind of work she wanted to do in the first place, with people who seem to be, you know, reasonable and decent human beings.

This leaves the audience with an interesting question. Was Andy really being corrupted? The movie wants to say yes, but I’m inclined to say no. She’s a victim in this situation, and she consistently tries to do the right thing. Still, within that incorrect characterization of Andy’s situation is a point that I think has some truth to it.

There are two different reactions given to Andy’s character arc. One is “you are changing, right now, for the worse.” This reaction comes from Emily, who gives her a rant that is primarily understandable rage and venting, but also from her friends. I’ll get into that reaction in the third and final piece of this series. The other one is that she is nice, that she hasn’t done anything wrong, but that she is on a path that will inevitably turn her into somebody she doesn’t want to be. The first person who gives her this perspective is the cute writer. The second is Miranda herself, in the dialog that convinces Andy to ditch the job.

There is something interesting going on in the culture of people who work with Miranda. Everybody gives in to her. Everybody treats her behavior as normal, defends her as a woman whose abusive treatment of her employees is the reason she is so powerful, and even idolizes her. In short, there is not a person there who does not demonstrate some Stockholm-y behaviors. Sometimes, this translates into mimicking Miranda’s behaviors. As I said last time, when Andy starts work everyone brutally mocks her size and her clothing. Emily, the character we feel so bad for when she misses out on Paris, is the primary perpetrator.

"I'm going to hate you on sight because that distracts me from the misery of my own existence, ok?"
“I’m going to hate you on sight because that distracts me from the misery of my own existence, ok?”

This is called identification with the aggressor, where mimicking an abuser’s behavior makes the victim feel more powerful and relieves anxiety. All this makes it even easier for Andy to get sucked into that mindset. No doubt every year newbies come to Runway, passionate about fashion and hopeful about their futures, only to have their spirits crushed, whether they stay or leave.

Even characters who are nicer than Emily still reinforce the abuse in smaller ways. For example Nigel, who is the one who befriends Andy and actually helps her fit in, also gives speeches justifying the importance of the work they do and belittling Andy’s complaints.

In this scene he is defending Miranda. By the end of the movie Miranda will have ruined his life.
In this scene he is defending Miranda. By the end of the movie Miranda will have ruined his life.

This is something I have also observed in both of the verbally abusive environments I’ve experienced (one directly, one from the sidelines). It isn’t just about what the main abuser does. It’s also about what the people around them do. It’s about the fellow victims who don’t want to believe they are victims, so they gaslight anyone who dares suggest that something twisted might be going on. It’s about the justifications that get passed around. It’s about the creation of a myth that “everyone who would put us down just doesn’t get how wonderful we are.”

As I mentioned in the previous piece, Miranda regularly violates laws and basic ethics with her employees. So why isn’t she facing any lawsuits? I’m sure part of it is that people are scared. No doubt her lawyers are the best money can buy. Still, there isn’t even a mention of anybody trying, even as they complain about her and share stories that would make any competent HR department weep. They could pool their resources on a lawsuit, and also dump documentation of past abuses on the press. Miranda is powerful, but so is public outrage, and the employees at Runway could do some serious damage. But they aren’t going to do that, because they don’t see her as their abuser.

Individually, everyone is only trying to survive a terrible environment. Collectively, they have created an environment where the abuse of everybody else is enabled. Is that corruption?

I think that’s the wrong question. Wrong here meaning “unlikely to actually help people get out of abuse.” Because, see, stigmatizing people who are in abusive situations does not help them get out at all. It only makes them more afraid to seek help. On the other hand, I don’t think ignoring the role their choices make helps either. People are more likely to take control of their lives if their ability to make choices is affirmed, just as Andy leaves Miranda when Miranda emphasizes to Andy that she is making choices to get ahead. But going back to the original hand, pretending that anybody with sufficient force of will can break free of their situation without any consequences… that’s a fantasy.

I think there are two right questions. The first is “how can we better teach each other to recognize abusive situations?” The second is “how can people outside the situation offer support to people who are being abused?” I’ll talk about both of those in my final piece, which should be up shortly.

Stockholm Syndrome and The Devil Wears Prada, Part 1

Trigger warning; emotional and verbal abuse

When I finished my two posts on how Beauty and the Beast doesn’t portray Stockholm Syndrome, I felt proud of the work, but also worried. I do think it’s valuable to talk about what things like Stockholm Syndrome don’t look like. Slapping that label on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and laughing about it encourages ignorance and flippancy towards a real problem. However, the piece felt incomplete without a contrasting post illustrating what Stockholm Syndrome does look like.

Then I realized one of my favorite movies, The Devil Wears Prada, was perfect. In the first place, it hits all of the elements of real life Stockholm Syndrome that Beauty and the Beast doesn’t. Second, it’s a natural companion because while Beauty and the Beast is the story everybody blindly points to as Stockholm Syndrome, The Devil Wears Prada is a case where, although I think my case is fairly solid, I don’t think anybody else has thought to apply that label to it. Third, it was a great excuse to watch the movie again.

Just as a refresher, while the common understanding of Stockholm Syndrome is “person gets kidnapped and then falls for their captor,” it doesn’t require literal captivity. It can exist any time one person has power and the other can’t escape it, or believes they can’t. When the person in power becomes abusive, the victim tries to cooperate and bond with the abuser as an act of self-preservation. While this can seem illogical to an outsider, but when you’re in the situation it can seem like, or even actually be, the only way to mitigate the damage. As this cooperation goes on, cognitive dissonance sets in. The victim can begin to actually see the abuser in a positive light and become genuinely attached. Those feelings don’t have to be romantic; any type of attachment counts.

Spoilers ahead, as I explain how this applies to The Devil Wears Prada.

The protagonist is Andrea Sachs, Andy to her friends, a young, idealistic aspiring journalist. She gets offered a job as an assistant at Runway, a fashion magazine, and takes it despite lacking any interest in fashion. It’s the only job offer she has. Her boss, Miranda Priestley, turns out to be terrifying. She mocks Andy’s clothes, calls her fat, and publicly belittles her every mistake while failing to provide any constructive feedback. On top of this her expectations are absurdly high. One of the first things Andy learns on the job is that the phone must always be answered, never allowed to go to voicemail. Once, a secretary sliced her hand open and was away from the desk because she trying to stop the bleeding. A call was missed. The secretary was fired.

When Miranda is only being a belittling, capricious perfectionist who makes Andy work past midnight, it’s a good day. On a bad day, she might give Andy a task that is physically impossible. In one scene Andy must find an airplane that will fly Miranda out of Florida during a hurricane, and is punished for failing. In Miranda’s world, you fail to meet an unreasonable expectation, your only hope is to fulfill some other unreasonable expectation, to prove that no, you can totally live in her unreasonable world. The alternative is losing your job, and being fired by Miranda burns your reputation throughout the world of fashion.

Succeeding usually doesn’t go much better. You don’t get fired, but you don’t get thanked either. You just get hit with another unreasonable demand tomorrow. People will often carry out her tasks only to discover she has changed her mind behind your back, and not only wants something else but is shocked that you didn’t read her mind. This is a psychological abuse tactic known as moving the goalposts. You can’t win, because even when you do well, the expectations change.

On top of dealing with that, Andy’s absurd hours mean she has little time for her friends outside work. She becomes increasingly isolated from her support group, while everyone at work picks on her. Even the nicest character calls her “six” a reference to her weight in a world where anything over four is fat. Unwilling to give up, Andy tries to fit in. She learns about fashion and changes her look.

Andy Before
Andy Before
Andy After
Andy After

She makes herself see Miranda’s demanding nature as a challenge and an opportunity, and takes pride in the tasks she can pull off. She even takes some time to enjoy the perks of the job; hobnobbing with the rich and famous, getting free samples of insanely expensive clothing and accessories, and… no, actually that’s it. But it’s something, and she enjoys it.

In the end, she gets to know Miranda better. As she starts recognizing subtle signs of Miranda’s approval, she even starts liking Miranda and defending her actions. When Miranda’s job becomes threatened, Andy fights to save it.

So now that I’ve given you the pieces, let me assemble them. Why is this Stockholm Syndrome, and Beauty and the Beast not?

Number one, Andy feels trapped. On paper, Belle is the character who is Beast’s prisoner, while Andy voluntarily took a job that she can quit any time. Under the surface, though, their situations are reversed. Belle ran away from the Beast the moment she felt threatened. Later on she returns voluntarily, and the Beast learns to control his temper, knowing that if he doesn’t he risks driving her away again. Andy, on the other hand, was low on options when she took the job. She repeatedly says she has to stay at least a year, because anything else would make her resume look poor. Furthermore, it is made explicit that if Miranda doesn’t like you, she doesn’t just have the power to fire you. She has contacts throughout publishing, and can write you the kind of reference that will blacklist you from every decent job in the business. Belle is the prisoner who can leave any time she wants to. Andy is the employee who has to stay.

Number two, Miranda uses her power over Andy abusively. She deliberately tears her employees down and bullies them into doing anything she asks, including acts that could get them arrested (in one scene Andy must steal an unpublished Harry Potter manuscript). The Beast is also bad, initially, but after Belle stands up to him, he changes. This is a dangerous point to make, because there are millions of people out there staying with their abuser because they believe some magical change will happen. However, there is a difference between Beast and those abusers. The abusers say they will change, then go back to their old behaviors, then say they will change, then go back, then say they will change, then go back. Beast just changes. You can discuss how realistic or common this is, and whether that might set up unrealistic hopes, and those are all valid questions, but it doesn’t change the fact that by the time Belle falls in love with him, he really isn’t acting like the Beast she met. We don’t see him go on the attack or lose his temper after the sequence where Belle runs away and returns. We do see him being kind to her.

In fact, a lot can be learned by contrasting the kindnesses Beast shows to the ones that Andy comes to think she sees in Miranda. In Stockholm Syndrome, as the victim tries to cooperate with their abuser, incredibly small gestures can be viewed as kindness. A momentary smile can make the victim feel like the special person who get to see this poor, broken individual’s good side. In the movie, Miranda deliberately calls Andy by the wrong name for nearly half the running time. It’s not a mistake; she is a sharp, detail oriented woman. Clearly she was capable of keeping remembering the name of one of her two personal secretaries. When she finally calls Andy “Andrea,” its a profound moment of her affirming that Andy has done well enough to earn her respect. It is also what is technically known as seriously fucked up.

No, no, people have to earn basic human interaction from me.
No, no, people have to earn basic human interaction from me.

The Beast isn’t a “small kindnesses” guy. He does big things. He spends time with her, getting to know her in a way the people in her village never did. He gives her his library because she loves books and he wants to see her happier. When she misses her father, he uses his magic to find him, and when they learn he needs help, Beast tells her to go to him, and that she does not need to come back. While I maintain that in spirit, she was never his prisoner, in that scene he formally releases her from her promise.

This is not to say that abusers can’t put on dramatic shows of affection, like the Beast’s gift of the library. The person who throws a romantic dinner one evening and beats their partner bloody the next is a definite Thing That Happens. However, abusers are fundamentally selfish and generally will not choose their partners needs over their own. If they did, they probably would be choosing “my partner’s need to not experience physical and/or psychological harm” over “my desire to hurt them.” When the Beast chooses to send Belle away, he thinks this means she will never return and he will be a monster forever. He has every reason not to do that. He does it anyway, preferring his pain to hers. This shows that his character arc from cruel to kind is authentic.

All of that leads me to the third element of Stockholm Syndrome; the victim attempts to bond with the abuser to mitigate damage. In contrast with Beauty and the Beast, where the Beast changes his behavior to bond with Belle, Andy changes how she acts and thinks in order to impress, and therefore survive, Miranda. She even tries to downplay how Miranda acts. In the long run, telling yourself that something awful really wasn’t that bad is unhealthy. It can become a beautiful fantasy that traps you in an ugly reality. In the short run, though, it can get you through the day.

This leads Andy directly to the fourth element of Stockholm Syndrome. Her behavior leads to actual attachment to Miranda, as demonstrated by the times she defends Miranda’s actions to others. This truth is that most abusers, being humans, have at least a glimmer of a good side, or at least a Freudian excuse. For people who are motivated to see their abusers as good people, this can be a smokescreen for a bigger truth; a good side and a sob story do not a good person make. Repeated acts of abuse are not erased because they are committed by a person who pets a puppy once in a while.

If you’ve watched the movie, you know of an element of the story that I haven’t touched on yet. Andy’s descent into the world of fashion is characterized by several characters as Andy “losing her soul.” So am I saying that Stockholm Syndrome victims are going over to the dark side? No, for the record, I don’t think that, but I think that raises some more complicated questions. So complicated, in fact, I will have to cover them in another post, so stay tuned. And thank you, very much, for reading this far.

An Alternative to “Write What You Know”

The advice “write what you know” is ubiquitous to the point of being cliche. It is also so frequently misunderstood, to the point that most of the writing out there on writing what you know is clarifying what that means. No, it doesn’t mean every book has to be an autobiography, yes you can imagine, yes you can research, but hang on, there are limits to what research can help you with and, well, it’s just complicated, see? Despite this, it keeps being passed around because it touches on an important truth; its easier to write well when you know something about the subject. The trouble with “write what you know” is that it gives a rule when what is really needed is guidance through a process.

Several years ago, I was studying to become an American Sign Language interpreter. The head of the program liked to impress on us the importance of extra-linguistic knowledge. She liked to abbreviate this to elk. If you ever found yourself recognizing all the words you were hearing, but still struggling to understand because you knew nothing about the topic, your elk was dead, and so, most likely, was your translation.

To understand how this works, think of a topic you know nothing about. It doesn’t matter what it is; oncology, beekeeping, quantum mechanics, the rules of hockey. Imagine you have to eavesdrop on a conversation on that topic, in English, then rephrase and explain it to somebody else, still in English. Even without a language gap, odds are you can’t do it. Maybe some information would come through correctly, but much of it would be forgotten and the rest misunderstood.

However, just as writers are sometimes fascinated by a story that requires knowledge they don’t have, interpreters sometimes go through spells where they need money, and jobs where they are perfect experts in every topic are hard to come by. We were taught to consider three things; the extent of our elk, the gap between that and the elk required for an assignment, and the what would happen if we messed up. For example, I don’t know much about economics, but I do know more than the average person about medicine, due to a morbid curiosity and a nurse for a mother. Does that mean I could have accepted all assignments that involve doctor’s appointments and none for economics classes? Absolutely not. Even with my medical geekery, I would have needed specialized training for hospital interpretation before taking on those assignments. The stakes, if I mistranslated a symptom or a doctor’s instructions, would be just too high. An advanced economics class for a business major would also be a bad choice, but how about a 101 class? Interpreters, like writers, can research before they start working, and teachers are often happy to give them copies of the syllabus. This combined with the low difficulty level of the class would mean I could revive my elk enough to interpret.

Another thing we learned was how to handle situations where our elk failed us unexpectedly. Conversations are organic, unpredictable things. You can accept a job translating a PTA meeting, and suddenly the discussion segues into something about a trip to New Zealand, and people are mentioning jungles but also penguins and you thought a kiwi was either a fruit or a New Zealander but apparently it’s also something that eats rubber off of cars? In these situations we learned to use contextual clues to figure things out on the fly, and if necessary also pause the conversation to get clarification from the clients.

I’ve found that all of the elk guidelines have writerly equivalents.

1. If you want to write about something you don’t know much about, consider how much you would need to know in order to make it plausible. Just as a 101 class is easier to translate with limited elk, writing an unfamiliar environment from the eyes of a newcomer is easier than getting into the head of an expert.

2. The consequences of some errors in research are bigger than others. In writing fiction, factual errors are usually forgiven unless they are common knowledge, they occur in a genre where accuracy is expected (i.e. hard science fiction) or the resolution of the plot hinges on them. What is more dangerous to a story is a characterization error. Being the millionth fantasy author to forget that horses are animals who need food and sleep won’t hurt your readership. However, if being a horse expert is an important part of your protagonist’s backstory, but they treat their own animal like a gasless motorcycle, that will stand out. It very well might break your story.

3. Little things you know nothing about can and will pop up. This is a sign that your story is flowing organically, which is good. So long as you understand the main topics of your story, you can do spot research as you go; it’s better than feeling chained to only writing thinly disguised autobiographies.

I have two more points before I close out the topic. First, elk can come from anywhere. It includes your experiences, what you studied in school, experiences your friends have told to you, the cool article you read last week, et cetera. As a result, you can often find you have elk for topics you thought you were ignorant about. Let’s say you’re a male author and nervous about writing female characters. Odds are you know more than you think. To begin with, you are a person. By now you should know a lot about being a person. Probably you know a lot about being a particular type of person, like a shy person or a brave person or a person who collects insects. Also, you probably know about the way people in your culture have different expectations for men and women. You know what a gender role is. So, imagine being a person who is shy and collects insects and lives with female gender roles. There you go; female character.

Second, elk is not a static thing. It evolves and expands throughout your life. If a topic is consistently interesting to you, but you feel your elk is too sickly, make it an ongoing research project until you are ready to write about it.

In short, don’t worry about writing what you know. Learn, and play around with what you have learned, until a good story happens.

How to Fix Pitch Perfect

This blog is a little bit of self-indulgent experimentation. I like to play a game when I watch a movie that I think has problems. Not movies I don’t like, in fact its often easier to play with movies I do like. I mean movies with what I identify as storytelling problems that go beyond matters of subjective taste; plot holes, inconsistent characterization, sloppy worldbuilding, etc. I take those movies, and I try to think of the single simplest fix. That means keeping as most characters, scenes, subplots and other story elements the same; I have to work as much as possible with what’s there. My goal is not to throw out the story and weave something new out of a handful of scenes and characters I liked, but to find the good story lurking in the muck and bring it out.

I think its a good mental exercise for writers. It has certainly helped my editing skills. The downside is that at the end I’ve got a story that I think is pretty good, but that I can’t do anything with, because its not mine. Then I thought, “maybe I can turn this game into an interesting blog post?” And then I thought, “no, nobody’s interested in that.” And then I argued with myself for several months. Today I have several blog posts I’m wrestling with and a pressing desire to post something, so I’m going to give this a try. Please give me some comments if you want to see more posts like this, because while I sometimes use this blog as a place to think aloud (see my endless meanderings on the nature of theme) I also want it to be a fun, interesting place for people who, you know, aren’t me.

I wrote for a bit back in November on my issues with Pitch Perfect. I think the biggest issue was that the overarching conflict didn’t make sense. The Bellas kept reusing the same song in all their performances. They knew from the judges feedback that this was a problem, and yet they didn’t solve it until the final scene because… saving costs on choreographer’s fees? Epic final dance number? It made the characters seem like idiots. To make up for it, there were a number of secondary issues. The team wasn’t getting along well. Why? Personality conflicts between team members besides the two protagonists weren’t established. It seemed to be just there to pad out screen time. One of the leads has an anxiety condition that makes her throw up unpredictably. Again, this doesn’t come with convincing characterization that fits in with her being stressed and anxious. Also, it’s really gross. Oh, and a lead singer has a random rare medical condition that isn’t life threatening, but might damage her voice. This only comes up when the writers need it to, and is solved with a lucky coincidence when the writers needed things to be happy.

Now, it is good to have multiple obstacles and conflicts, but stories that feel tight and well-written have an overarching problem, and the supplementary obstacles tend to feel like natural compliments. They are realistic consequences of the paths the characters choose, or they are thematically related to the main conflict, or they tie in some other way. This story feels like the writers cobbled together whatever they thought would give their characters a problem.

The story starts with the group leaders, Aubrey and Chloe, trying to assemble a new team. The old Bellas looked like this.

Same body type, same race, perfect teeth, perfect matching stewardess outfits suggesting they are available for ogling but not "sluts."
Same body type, same race, perfect teeth, perfect matching stewardess outfits suggesting they are available for ogling but not “sluts.”

Later on, twice characters will comment on how the new team is less pretty, by which they mean two characters are fat, one of the fat ones is lesbian and gender non-conforming, one is scrawny and flat chested instead of lean yet curvy, and one is tall and sex obsessed in a “I love sex because I love it” way, instead of a “I like to be pretty eye candy for you to objectify” way. These two mentions cause problems at the time but are lost among the morass of poorly developed side conflicts.

Why not make that the central conflict? Pit the Bella’s desire to sing and have fun and be judged primarily for their singing against society’s tendency to evaluate women aesthetically first, and treat all other attributes as secondary. It’s an interesting, realistic problem that is culturally relevant and, in keeping with the rules of my game, works with material that is already there.

In my amended version of the story, the Bellas used to win because they combined genuine musical talent with sex appeal, but as old singers have graduated over the years, the leaders, Aubrey and Chloe have struggled to find replacements. Because the visual style of the Bellas is very rigid and narrow, they can’t count on always finding women who fit that aesthetic while also being able to dance and sing. Aubrey and Chloe decide that sex sells and start prioritizing looks over ability, and the quality of their group declines rapidly.

Now the story has an explanation for why they picked the same song over and over again. It has a range and choreography that accommodates the skill level of their singers. It’s a sign of how far the Bellas have fallen. (As I write this I’m aware that if the scene explaining this backstory was executed poorly, it could fit the “dumb but sexy” stereotype of attractive women. There are also ways of writing it to make it clear that these aren’t bad or dumb people, just people trying to compete at a level that is beyond where they are. For example, if the women know they suck and leave because they themselves are fed up, it makes them look self-aware and intelligent.)

Now Aubrey and Chloe are trying casting based primarily on singing ability, but sticking with the costumes, choreography and genres they are used to (obviously not the same song anymore, because we’re leaving that with the old film, but the same style). It’s not working. People are making jokes about how Fat Amy* looks in the stewardess uniform, instead of listening to how goddamn fantastic her voice is.

"I am Fat Amy. I am gorgeous, I rock, and this suit is a metaphor for your oppressive gender roles!"
“I am Fat Amy. I am gorgeous, I rock, and this suit is a metaphor for your oppressive gender roles!”

Enter Beca. Yes, she spells it with one C, to show she’s a rebel or whatever. She has the looks of a classic Bella, but the exact opposite attitude.  She’s a natural loner, and doesn’t even want to go to college. Her dream is to go to LA and become a DJ. In the film, she claims her father is making her go and being unfair, which I didn’t think was a fair characterization. He’s saying that he’s okay with her goal, but he thinks college will give her more options if that doesn’t work out, and also give her some experiences that she will treasure later on. He even offers a compromise; if she tries college for one year, on his dime, and gives it an honest effort by joining clubs and attending classes, he will let her do whatever she wants after that. All of this is not only reasonable, but its a much better deal than most kids get. In the end, the film proves him right. Beca joins the Bellas grudgingly but learns to enjoy it and learns some valuable people skills.

In the film that was actually produced, Beca fixes Chloe and Aubrey’s problem for them by making new songs with her DJ skills. In mine, the same thing happens, but now she’s not coming to an obvious conclusion that the two of them should have thought of ages ago. They are already trying to make new music, but they don’t know how to experiment outside of their comfort zone. Beca shows them how to combine different genres, so everyone can show off their individual style and the performance still looks good. The other thing that changes is that, while she is a good DJ, she doesn’t know how to schedule rehearsals, choreograph dances or design costumes. In the movie, Chloe and Aubrey pretty much throw the reins to her, but I think its more interesting to force all three to work together, and show that struggle to learn to cooperate.

This conflict lets them have ups and downs that flow organically from the central conflict. Some of their initial experiments might not go well, setting them back in enough competitions to keep them as underdogs. Beca and Aubrey can both have interesting character arcs. They are both preoccupied with an unrealistic image; Beca with the preoccupied loner who Just Doesn’t Care, and Aubrey with the perfect sexy yet pure and effortlessly talented feminine goddess. For both of them, those stereotypes do somewhat express who they are, but they are just that; stereotypes, images too limited for any real human being to live as for long, at least not without going crazy. Beca needs to understand that in the real world, constantly isolating yourself from people doesn’t make you happy. Aubrey needs to value people for who they are as people, not just who they are on the outside, and that includes valuing herself for more than just how attractive she is to others. Both of them need to learn to not be so scornful of people who aren’t like them.

The other cast members, meanwhile, learn to be fine with who they are, to stand up against a society that puts them down for being themselves. They need to tell Aubrey, to her face, that being stuffed into outfits that don’t go with their body type and dance like a trophy wife just gets them mocked for not fitting this specific standard of beauty, and that’s shitty. They aren’t ugly. They’re all beautiful in their own way; none of them are everyone’s cup of tea, because in the real world different people have different tastes, so why don’t they just be themselves and let their own natural beauty come out? And more to the point, they didn’t come to look pretty or to win, they came because they liked singing, so why don’t they just focus on singing? Over the course of the movie, they learn to collectively shift their priorities from putting on a show with audience bait, to putting on a show that expresses who they are and that they all can feel proud of, regardless of whether they win or not.

At which point, naturally, society reward their non-materialistic, individualistic choices with the a capella championship. It’s a very Hollywood ending, but not in a bad way. In real life, something born of authentic passion can often triumph over something calculated to be popular.

Also, this final number really was fantastic.
Also, this final number really was fantastic. You would have given them first place too.

I have a few more personal tweaks that I would like to add to the above story. I wouldn’t want the protagonists to all be conventionally pretty, and all the unconventionally pretty characters to be side characters. Perhaps I would make Beca more obviously punk or goth, with piercings, tattoos and a mohawk. There are several clumsy attempts at a capella puns that I would cut, as well as two random anti-Semitic jokes that are in really poor taste. I would also make Beca apologize to her Dad for being a brat to him when he was actually being pretty awesome. Still, I think I’ve covered all the major plot problems. I’ve given it a structure that seems organized, but still works with the characters, something that can be light and fun but feels like it has more substance underneath. Also I had fun writing this.

So what do you think? Good story? Good post? How would you fix this story, or other ones that you’ve seen? Would you be interested in seeing more posts like these?

*For those who haven’t seen the movie, Fat Amy is the name she chose for herself, because she knew people were going to call her that anyway and she wanted them to know she didn’t give a fuck. I love her.

Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Silly Songs with Larry

If confused, note the date on which this was published, and enjoy!

Each episode of Veggie Tales, with very few exceptions, has a Silly Song with Larry. Even the two Singalong videos contained an original Silly Song each. So far I have not talked about them, because they are never linked, in content or theme, to the rest of the episode. This is a shame, because not only are they catchy and hilarious, but they also contain some of the most poignant and profound philosophy of the entire series.  Today I will remedy this by reviewing them as a whole; I will not be able to do each song full justice in this one post, but I will do my best. I will also include links for each. A description of the philosophy behind any work of art can never be equal to experiencing it firsthand.

The original Silly Song was “The Water Buffalo Song,” from Where’s God When I’m S-s-scared? It begins with the statement “Everybody’s got a water buffalo, yours is fast but mine is slow,” and continues to make increasingly nonsensical statements, until Archibald Asparagus charges in and interrupts. He berates Larry for falsely claiming that “everybody’s got a water buffalo.” He goes on to say that “we are going to get nasty letters saying, ‘where’s my water buffalo? Why don’t I have a water buffalo?’ and are you prepared to deal with that? I don’t think so!” The last century has seen a great increase in absurdist movements; dadaism, postmodernism, post-post-modernism and the various abstract schools of art. These movements try to remove meaning from art, or at the very least make us question how we frame our conceptions of meaning. Archibald demonstrates the futility of this, how people will continue to read meaning into chaos, that the harder artists try to avoid meaning, the harder the rest of us will try to find it. It is a criticism of the aims of Dadaism… or perhaps is it a criticism of those who would try to derive meaning where there is none? Appropriately enough for the subject matter, the point is ambiguous.

Next came “the Hairbrush Song,” in which Larry, having finished a shower, looks for his hairbrush. In the end, it was given to the Peach, by Bob, who innocently assumed that, since Larry has no hair, he had no use for it. Larry feels a deep sense of loss for an object that he had no use for, but eventually overcomes it and lets go of the hairbrush. This makes us question the value we place on objects, and how we define property rights. Is an object indelibly the property of the first person to possess it, or is it justifiable to redistribute goods based on need? Is it ever right to take from the rich and give to the poor? The point is further complicated when our attention is drawn to the role of culture in what we value. Because of the noise Larry makes in looking for his hairbrush, people constantly barge in on him and are embarrassed by the sight of him in a towel. Why? Larry is a cucumber with no private parts, and he is ordinarily naked, but the sight of him partially covered still brings to mind nudity taboos. What objects do we need only because society declares that we need them?

"Shocked and surprised at the sight of each other in a towel"
“Shocked and surprised at the sight of each other in a towel”

The next three songs are more socially conscious. In “Dance of the Cucumber,” exoticizing of the other is satirized when Larry puts on a stereotypical poncho and sombrero to sing in Spanish, only to turn the tables by mocking and othering Bob, his translator. In “ I Love My Lips,” Archibald tries to psychoanalyze Larry’s oral fixation, which draws attention to the simplistic approaches of classic Freudian analysis. “Oh Santa” shows us Larry as a young boy eagerly awaiting Santa, only to be disappointed three times. The first two times he expects Santa but instead gets a Viking and a bank robber who intend to victimize him, but by showing them kindness he converts them. The third time he is disappointed by Santa himself, who spies the two criminals and immediately abandons his mission to deliver toys, instead intent on punishing the two on his “naughty list.” This questions our legal system and the way it penalizes without rehabilitating, simultaneously neglecting the neediest of us who break no laws.

"I Love My Lips" is also the reason all conservative Christian 90s kids know the Polish word for lip.*
“I Love My Lips” is also the reason all conservative Christian 90s kids know the Polish word for lip.*

Then the Silly Singalong came out, and Silly Songs with Larry went meta.

The Silly Singalong contained both Silly Songs with Larry, and a mix of other great songs from previous episodes. In between the songs were spoken word sketches where Larry would mistakenly believe that they were doing a workout video, a home improvement video, and a financial success video. This seemed like just a bit, until the episode debuted a brand-new Silly Song with Larry; the famous “Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.” It was also the first Silly Song to feature other characters as singers. Larry, Pa Grape and Mr. Lunt (who first appeared in Rack, Shack and Benny, review coming soon), all sat on a couch in pirate gear, singing about all the pirate-y things they never do. Larry broke the pattern, using his verse to describe activities ranging from “never sniffed a stink bug” to “never thrown my mashed potatoes up against a wall.”

This reveals that Larry was not making mistakes in his earlier segments, but making a point. What is a Singalong video but a means to milk cash from the public without producing anything new? In pretending he thought they were making some sort of self-help video, he was drawing the viewer’s attention to the vapid commercialism of the project in question. “You are paying us to do nothing” he was saying, “and you would be better off with one of these blatant cash cow videos that at least attempts to teach you something.” Calling himself a pirate who doesn’t do anything drove the point home.

It was also an excuse to rock this look.
It was also an excuse to rock this look.

As he maintained his obfuscating stupidity, his cast members continued to notice none of his subversive philosophy, consistently writing him off as nothing but a buffoon. The worst offender was Archibald, the embodiment of hypocritical artistic snobbery. Archibald consistently claims to want to raise the artistic level of Veggie Tales, to class things up. He considers himself an intellectual, but his artistic endeavors have no substance to them. He seeks the trappings of sophistication, nothing more. This conflict comes to a head in back to back episodes, Josh and the Big Wall and Madame Blueberry. In the former, Larry criticizes style over substance productions in the deliberately disastrous multimedia event, “Song of the Cebu.” Archibald, naturally, misses the point completely. In Madame Blueberry, he replaces Larry’s segment with Love Songs  with Mr. Lunt. The love song that promises to be more sophisticated and poignant than Silly Songs with Larry instead is a meaningless ode to a cheeseburger.

Larry gets his own back in the next Singalong. This framing device for this one has Larry bemoaning his fate in a bar (ice cream bar, that is) while Jimmy Gourd tries to cheer him up with past songs. At the end, though, Archibald appears, claiming that the public has rallied behind Larry and demanded his reinstatement. A great irony of art is revealed; those who ostentatiously display their points often end up with less to say than those who disguise their philosophy with humor and popular appeal. The dichotomy between art and entertainment is false. True art is entertaining, because truth speaks to our hearts. Larry illustrates this for Archibald with the closing song, “Yodeling Veterinarian of the Alps.” In it, a vet gains a reputation for miraculously curing people’s pets by yodeling. Those who come to him miss the prescriptions for real medicine that the nurse hands out behind the scenes. However, when the vet mistreats his nurse, the nurse stops helping, and the vet is revealed to be incompetent. The vet, of course, is the external trappings of art, and the nurse is the meaning. Archibald, naturally, misses the point entirely.

Still, all is well, as to this day, Larry provides his subversive satire and subtle philosophy to this day.

Silly Larry

*Usta! Actually means mouth, based on two minutes of online research.