Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The moral world of Toy Story and post-modern subversion of genre

Aliya Whitely, doyenne of quirk-fiction (I’m inventing a new genre for her as she’s having trouble fitting into one at the moment) has just put up an interesting post about Toy Story which got me thinking about the whole art/life (or fiction/reality if you want to sound less pretentious) thing.
I’m easily pleased by kids’ films and, lazily, I hadn’t bothered to look at the underlying nuts and bolts of Toy Story but Aliya’s right – the TS franchise takes the central premise that toys are alive and have feelings and runs with it to some disturbing conclusions. Disturbing because it follows that, if you don’t buy into the premise (and neither Andy, owner of Woody, Buzz et al nor Sid, the toy-torturer does) then you’re going to end up being, at best, thoughtless and, at worst, cruelly destructive towards your playthings.
Of course, without this premise, there’d be no film; the toys have to have human emotions rather than just being automata or we would feel no sympathy for them. But that’s the point of Aliya’s post, I suppose; should we be having sympathy for toys, for things that, in the real world, are inanimate?
It’s OK for us adults, we know it’s all fantasy, a fairy-story which we’re supposed to apply to our normal, everyday lives where how we treat people really matters. But do kids get this? Proponents of one side of the whole ‘effects of TV on their little minds’ debate constantly tell us that children know the difference between fact and fantasy, that they are – in fact – very sophisticated when it comes to telling the difference. I think that’s true but it doesn’t stop  fantasy having an effect on them.
Take my own offpsring. They were pretty sophisticated with this sort of stuff – they had to be, they had stories pretty much force-fed to them from birth  – but that still didn’t stop my older son having nightmares about some things that the British Board of Film Control thought were innoccuous enough to be given a U rating. ‘I know it’s not real’ he’d say to me and his Dad after waking from yet another bad dream ‘but I can’t stop thinking about it.’ Somehow, the reality of the film had insinuated itself into his mind and however much he told himself that it wasn’t real, the images had come to have a reality of their own and they frightened him.
So what about adult fiction?
As readers, are we affected, in unhelpful ways, by things we know not to be true?
As writers, are there genre conventions that make it difficult to represent life as it really is? For instance, there seems to be a feeling that ‘cosy crime’ is making a comeback at the moment because real life has become so morally ambiguous and the world such a threatening place that we need our fiction to shore up the feeling that the good guys do win in the end, that all is, truly, right with the world.
Are there conventions governing your own genre that you’re not happy with or are we all contentedly subverting such things in a thoroughly post-modern manner?

PS. Sorry, couldn't resist the PhD thesis-type title of this post!!


Frances Garrood said...

Interesting post. As far as kids are concerned, I am always amazed at their ability to differentiate between truth and fiction. Books like Strewelpeter - an exceptionally nasty book when you think about, but beloved of all my children - never seemed to bother them in the slightest, and they loved gory fairy stories; the gorier the better. And yet their imaginary friends seemed to be genuinely real to them. One of my sons had a whole tribe of these, and woe betide anyone who sat on one or shut the door in its face. On the other hand, they were perfectly happy to abuse their toys, who received much roughter treatment.

But I think the more 'real' TV programmes and video games have an insidious and quite damaging effect, implying as they do that it's ok to shoot and hurt others provided you're the good guy - ie the person the child is identifying with.

As far as dreams are concerned, I think films and books may sow the seeds of irrational fears, or feed into fears that already exist. I suspect that there's a part of the dreaming mind that is almost searching for something to which it can attach its anxiety.

(Not sure this is a sensible reply to your post, Alis. I'm having a particularly bad day!)

C. N. Nevets said...

@Alis - Like Aliya, my novel-writing doesn't fit neatly into a traditional genre. I call what I write psychological suspense, but while I certainly use some tropes of thrillers, my novels are also packed with surrealism, philosophy, and a literary sensibility.

All that to say, that to say, my stuff doesn't fit a genre, so I don't have to worry about the genre interfering.

But, on the hand, I run the risk of not bringing in as much dough as the Toy Story franchise because it.

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