Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Are fairytales boring now? And other thoughts on clichés

China Mieville recently reviewed the Collected Stories of JG Ballard (you can read it here: and observed something considered all too rarely in reviews:

[…] the trotting out of the crashingly uninteresting nonsurprise that a writer of such perverse and astonishing cast of mind lived in cheerfully anodyne Shepperton, a small town southwest of London. […]
It is more or less de rigueur for any article about Ballard to cite the supposed cha
sm between his environs and his mind. The ubiquity of the notion, of course, is good reason to investigate it in an introduction but not, one would hope, merely to recycle it, particularly since it is such a specious paradox. In the era of David Lynch, of films like The Burbs and Disturbia (now the title of a Rihanna track), even of a television series like Desperate Housewives, nothing is more constipatedly quotidian than the assumption that the suburbs are hotbeds of perversity, sex, violence and other lurid divertissements. Far rarer is the allegation that behind those sneered-at white picket fences, nothing is going on. The notion that the suburbs are really strait-laced, quiet and boring is a kind of anti-cliché, and it only exists as the faintest shadow of its putatively edgy transgression.

How refreshing to find a review that notices that many people have already made a particular point, instead of reiterating the point as if it were the reviewer’s. When Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was published, every reviewer remarked - usually at the beginning - that the novel could have used Philip Larkin’s “Sex began in 1963 / which was rather late for me” as its epigraph. None of them seemed to realise that this point had had been made by every reviewer, let alone that it wasn’t complex enough to merit such parroting.
Popular Culture (and, as I must always say on this blog, all that means for me is something that appeals to a large range of people) suffers from this, perhaps because while it might be recognised that Coetzee and Roth are complex, the fact that Seinfeld, Father Ted, the first ten seasons of The Simpsons and the work of Terry Pratchett are too seems to be taking longer to catch on. Listen to Matthew Sweet or Mark Lawson talk about Doctor Who, and you’ll notice they repeat truisms - Doctor Who mixes sci-fi with quirky Britishness, Doctor Who works by mixing the mundane with the extraordinary, Doctor Who makes children hide behind the sofa, Doctor Who has changed with the times - but don’t say anything incisive about the show, anything that the listener or viewer has not considered before, anything that actually comes from a reading of the show rather than a plot summary. Newsnight’s embarrassing report on the 1988 Who story The Happiness Patrol, claiming that the BBC had attempted to bring down Thatcher in broadcasting such a programme, is the nadir of this. Had The Happiness Patrol been a novel or a play, it would have been established fairly soon that it was unlikely to topple governments, but because broadcasters prefer to speak in terms of plot summaries and truisms about the nature of the show rather than its actual content, the Newsnight feature got made (There are many admirable things Doctor Who achieved during the Sylvester McCoy era, of which I am a fervent supporter, but dealing a mighty blow to Thatcher was sadly not one of them).
Watch a documentary on vampires of the kind BBC4 might broadcast and you’ll notice people state that vampirism is a metaphor for sexuality ceaselessly, as if this was something more than a sentence. It creates the illusion of depth - because it’s about sex where you wouldn’t expect sex - but unless you have something further to say about this aged observation, it is neither deep nor interesting. When Angela Carter published The Bloody Chamber in 1979, her interpretation of fairy tales as explorations of violence, power and sexuality was fresh and provocative, but thirty-one years later I can’t help but feel that one comes across ironic retellings of Little Red Riding Hood (more recent examples include David Peace’s Red Riding quartet and Carol Ann Duffy’s male version “Little Red Riding Cap” in her poetry collection The World’s Wife) so often that wonders what a non-ironic interpretation would be like. The observation that fairy tales were cleaned up by writers like Charles Perrault and were originally much nastier, and the cute little irony that it’s adults rather than children who prefer them cleaned up, is a given now, which is why Steven Moffat’s recurring insistence that Doctor Who is really a fairy tale and not sci-fi at all is wearisome rather than imaginative. Once a juxtaposition - be it fairy tales and violence, fairy tales and the modern world, fairy-tales and sci-fi or, as Mieville noted, suburbia and the uncanny - starts to be made by everyone it is no longer a juxtaposition.
Consider the history of the clown. First, they were supposed to make children laugh. Yet ironically enough, they were quite frightening, so a spooky clown was quite an amusing juxtaposition. Batman’s nemesis the Joker first appeared in 1940; the Doctor Who story The Deadly Assassin (splendid despite its woeful title), which featured a virtual reality nightmare in which a clown appears for no other reason than to scare the young viewers senseless (watch that and then tell me clowns are funny) was broadcast in 1976; Stephen King’s novel IT, which portrayed a group of people who were all menaced by a monstrous clown in their otherwise realistically depicted small-town childhood, was published in 1986; the Doctor Who story The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, which began with the assumptions that circuses and clowns were supposedly fun but actually sinister, and featured the memorable image of evil clowns pursuing their prey in a hearse, was broadcast in 1988; the film Poltergeist, which featured a archetypical monster-under the bed scene where a child’s clown doll came to life, was released in 1982. And that’s just the actual horror material: casual references in 1980s and early 90s comedy - Kramer’s fear of clowns and crazy Joe Davola in Seinfeld, The Guild of Fools in Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms, Bart’s fear of his clown-decorated bed in the Simpsons episode “Lisa’s First Word”, and a similar problem affecting the title character in the movie Problem Child - confirm that the notion that clowns are supposed to be cute or funny but are actually frightening has become a cultural norm.
So, in 2008, when an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures - “The Day of the Clown” - not only gave us a scary clown, but had its characters respond to the situation with dialogue of the “Aren’t clowns supposed to be funny?” / “I Dunno - I always found something slightly sinister about them” variety, one can’t help feeling that the show’s writers are lagging behind the imaginative capacity of most of its young viewers. What was once ironic is now standard. Clowns have gone from funny to scary to boring. The current version of Doctor Who is currently stuck with a similar trope that is supposedly subversive but by now rather tired: the everyday juxtaposed with the fantastic. The first episode of the newer version in 2005 featured an evil wheelie-bin in an everyday suburban street and window-dummies in recognisable shops coming to life (first seen in a 1970 Doctor Who story). Since then, we’ve had evil SatNavs, evil child’s drawings, evil diet pills, evil dinner ladies, evil teachers, evil TV personalities, evil Santas, evil Christmas trees, evil statues. This was fun at first, but by 2010, when we’re presented with an army of evil pensioners sprouting generic CGI tentacles from their mouths, it doesn’t strike the viewer who remembers the previous 4 series as a frightening juxtaposition but as a standard Doctor Who trope. Similarly, when the buzzer on a average-looking suburban front door asks a passer-by for assistance and he embarks up the familiar-but-sinister-staircase to the familiar-but-sinister top floor, we don’t feel that our sense of what is everyday and reassuring is being invaded by the monstrous or the uncanny anymore: we just know we’re watching Doctor Who again. What China Mieville observed has happened with the “suburbs aren’t what they seem” idea has also happened with the “something familiar from everyday life is out to get you” idea. Doctor Who needs to move on from this if it wants to become frightening again, otherwise we’re in for evil post-boxes in the next series.

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