Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
And how to update the genre and everything will still be okay
I’ve been wanting to write about the genre of Hallmark Christmas movies for a while now. Thanks to Hallmark for their big blunder with pulling an ad—and now changing their decision—to get me to write this post with a new take.
First, in case you skip all news Hallmark, the recent controversy
Hallmark has been running an ad for Zola Inc, a wedding planning company, that includes a same-sex couple. Apparently, the sight of two women kissing in wedding attire was too much for delicate conservative constitutions, and Hallmark pulled the ad December 12. Fortunately, they announced December 15 that they had made the wrong decision and were reinstating the ad. Social media and inclusion win again (whether you buy Hallmarks’ contrition or not). Yay!
Still, not all is inclusive in Hallmark land
Hallmark Christmas movies have never been known for their inclusiveness, and they definitely present one worldview of women and men, family, the value of work, and love.
Allow me to present the genre of Hallmark Christmas movies
An attractive young woman (usually with long hair and carefully curled waves) leads a busy life in the big city, working too many hours but on the rise in her profession (architect, lawyer, designer, chef—no teachers that I can remember). She is unmarried, of course, though she may be engaged to a big city workaholic guy.
Something happens to call her home to the small town she grew up in (she inherits her aunt’s B&B, tries to save her father’s Christmas tree farm from bankruptcy). Or she is sent to a small town for her job (she’s assigned to buy up the land for their new resort, has to decorate the boss’s vacation house for Christmas, is planning the wedding of the century). Very occasionally, workaholic woman already lives in small town, but the genders in that version have been largely reversed in more recent years.
In any case, big city workaholic arrives in Podunk town with a job to do.
The Podunk town is inevitably charming. Its main street is filled with thriving local stores (the town bakery, small bookstore, coffee shop) and bustling with locals on the sidewalks, all greeting each other with smiles. There is snow on the street and at the curbs, but never enough to make the sidewalks slippery or the streets unsafe to drive (or even to cover the tops of cars usually, my partner would want me to point out). Any major snowstorm waits until our heroine and her new love interest are safely ensconced in a cabin in the woods, alone.
About that Love Interest
He is the local boy, tall and handsome and good with his hands (in a handyman kind of way, not a handsy kind of way. This is Hallmark, after all). He might be fixing the porch railings on that B&B, or hauling Christmas trees to customers’ cars, or carving wooden gnomes in the barn. He works with his hands, not his brain. He likely has a daughter, a cute young 6- or 7- or 8-year old girl in pigtails whose mother died tragically of cancer or in a car accident. Having learned the true meaning of life, he’s happy with his small-town life, its slower pace, and its values.
In sharp contrast to our heroine’s current fiancé
Our Hallmark heroine either resists all close human interaction in favor of her ambition or has an equally ambitious fiancé. He stays behind in the big city (at least in the first hour of the movie) for work. If she has no current love interest, it’s usually because she’s been hurt, or her parent died when she was young, or she’s afraid to get close to anyone again. If she has a fiancé, he’s usually just like her at the beginning—ambitious, working too many hours, thinking only of making money and getting ahead. Their apartments in the big city (never a house) are always streamlined contemporary stainless steel and glass with lots of leather furniture, with huge walls of windows showing city lights and a kitchen that no one seems ever to have cooked in.
Until current fiancé arrives in small town as a surprise (or early), only to discover that our heroine has meanwhile fallen for the local handsome handyman. Thanks to his influence, and all the townspeople she meets (usually including at least one older woman with gray hair and a rounder body who offers wise words about what’s really important in life—or a similar man who is clearly secretly Santa), our heroine has begun to change her values. She learns the joy of baking Christmas cookies together, of saving the historic building rather than tearing it down, of putting family ornaments on a Christmas tree, of playing in the snow with Love Interest’s delightful little girl. She has learned to slow down and value human connection over human ambition.
What happens next??
Poor dumb fiancé, who did nothing wrong but fit into our heroine’s old way of life, gets kicked to the curb. Often abruptly. Sometimes he does something that makes us glad she dumped him, but just as often he’s an okay guy who just wants different things. The things she used to want.
Something happens to let our heroine stay in the small town. She takes over the family Christmas tree farm or B&B, buys the local bakery, gets a job in the big city nearby, or follows her dream to the writing or crafting or house decorating she has always wanted to do and becomes a small-town entrepreneur.
And of course she and the Love Interest hook up. Well, no, they don’t. They kiss, which seems to be the same thing in a Hallmark movie. Often they kiss as the very last scene, with snow falling gently around them and music rising to greet them. Or maybe in front of the family room Christmas tree with delightful daughter and wise old family members looking on.
And they live happily ever after.
Are you surprised? Yeah, I didn’t think so
What doesn’t happen
Our Love Interest doesn’t move to the big city with our heroine so that she can take that big promotion she was offered. Usually, his work doesn’t change at all, unless his gnome carving saves the family tree farm from bankruptcy
Our Love Interest is not African American, or Latino, or Native American, or anything other than snow white. The best friend might be a person of color, but we learn nothing about her except that she listens well and advises our heroine to follow her heart
And our heroine definitely doesn’t fall in love with the local handy-woman, leading to the two brides softly kissing at the end
And now for the parody
It may have sounded like a parody, but my description so far includes story elements from actual movies. Saturday Night Live, though, did do a parody, offering a Hallmark game show that demonstrated that the goal of every woman is to be husbanded
Why does anyone watch?
To be able to recount the genre so fully, I forced myself to watch a lot of Hallmark Christmas movies. It was tough, but somebody had to do it.
In truth, I’m confessing my shameful secret—that I’ve watched those movies for a few years now. The feminist me blushes as I admit the truth. I’m well aware of how they reduce women and men to caricatures, insist that women value family and marriage over work or adventure, idealize small town life and demonize big cities. And so much more.
But they also make life seem simpler for the moment, tug at the heartstrings of our childhoods and love for family or friends, and assure us that everything works out at the end.
Suggestions for Hallmark
So thanks to Hallmark for apologizing and returning to valuing all people and all kinds of love. Now they just need to update their Hallmark Christmas movie. After all, every genre changes as the world in which it exists changes.
So let’s have a Hallmark Christmas movie with a same-sex couple.
And couples of multiple races and identities.
And heroines and Love Interests who weigh more than 100 pounds.
And live with disabilities
And older than 25. Heck, maybe even older than 55! or 65!!
Let’s see the couple work out creative solutions for maintaining purposeful jobs while staying together. Let’s hear them discuss how they’re going to pay the bills if she quits her job to make Christmas cookies
Let’s recognize the economic realities of small towns and show the townspeople struggling to make jobs for the heroine (or their college-educated children) to return to
Everything can still end happily at the end. I don’t want to take away the guilty pleasure of a simple story that shows everything will be okay.
But Hallmark could reduce the guilt part with a few tweaks to fit the genre into the current world. That’s what genres do
The heroine can still have long hair with waves curled just so. And the snow can still look pretty without being slippery. And the movie can end with a kiss.
It can be just as romanticized as that Zola ad. And everything will still be okay
And 5 Things NOT to Do
I am feeling heartsick and enormously sorrowful after yet another, and another, mass shooting in the US.
We all are.
Like others, I want to DO something about it. Not just analyze it, talk about it, feel bad about it. Another one is coming. More mass shootings are coming. I want to DO something that will make them come less often, allow fewer of them to happen.
But what can I do that will actually make any difference? Because I’m also, like others, feeling hopeless and powerless. I'm writing another post after another mass shooting. I even had a category of blog posts to add this one to--"mass shootings"
That's just wrong. Nothing is changing
Many of us have been doing many things that don’t work, that reinforce our sense of powerlessness.
Here are 5 things NOT to do:
That can’t stand. We have to take action. Meaningful, purposeful action.
Here are 5 things TO DO that have a better chance of making a difference:
And vote for all who support stricter gun control legislation and vote against any who resist gun control and instead blame immigrants or mental health systems or even hateful tweeters instead of proposing and supporting specific gun control laws
Yes, other issues matter in every election, and yes, other systemic issues contribute to mass shootings, but we have to act together in overwhelming numbers and soon to get military weapons and ammunition out of the hands of shooters before any other actions stand a chance of being effective.
We have to do what we can NOW to limit the number and damage of mass shootings.
You don’t have to agree with me about which policies to support, but I know you too feel the devastation.
Find solutions you believe in, whatever evidence shows might work. You can search congress.gov for federal proposals that have been introduced and legiscan.com for proposals in all 50 states as well as Congress.
Push for those solutions to the people who can make them happen. Vote for those people who commit to making them happen.
Send laws in addition to thoughts and prayers.
And send a message. VOTE
Sometimes writing isn't enough
Writing does some things really well. Sometimes that isn’t enough.
As much as I love writing, sometimes it isn’t enough.
As important as writing is, sometimes it isn’t enough.
Sometimes writers need to become speakers.
This is not a story on how to promote your blog or how writers should use social media. You can find lots of good advice on those topics online elsewhere.
This is a story on the limitations of writing in any medium. And why. And when you might need to speak instead
I like to think that once I’ve written something down, especially once my writing has been published, my work is done and now people know . . . whatever it is I wanted them to know. But our writing doesn’t have impact until it’s read. And even then writing can have less impact than the same information presented in other media or genres.
Consider the impact of the many articles and books written about the unjust convictions and imprisonment of the “Central Park Five.” Now consider the impact of one Netflix dramatic series, “When They See Us.” Writing (and even an earlier documentary) wasn’t enough.
Consider the difference between writing a report and testifying before Congress. After special counsel Robert Mueller published his team’s 2-volume, 448-page report (plus many more pages of appendixes), he remained publicly silent. “We chose those words carefully,” Mr. Mueller eventually said, “and the work speaks for itself.”
If only that were true.
If only our words were always enough and could speak for themselves. But the case of Mueller’s report illustrates a few key facts about writing:
How many times have you decided not to read an article in The Atlantic or Harper’s or the New York Times Magazine because you didn’t have time or it was just too long?
Writing needs to be read.
2. Dense or long texts require a lot of cognitive processing (brain work) that can make it hard for readers to hang onto.
By page 73 and its footnote number 341, even the most intrepid reader might be struggling to keep straight one more phone call and email between a Russian and Michael Cohen.
How many times have you started reading an article or story and quit before the end because it was just too much work for the payoff? Or simply found yourself lost in the middle, trying to remember how this part fits into the topic you started with? Or trying to process a complicated sentence with multiple moving parts?
3. Words and sentences require interpretation.
Mueller might have thought the Conclusion would “speak for itself” for those who reached page 200+ and the Conclusion to the Executive Summary to Volume II of the report
But Attorney General William Barr and the President both offered interpretations of that conclusion apparently at odds with what Mueller thinks the report said.
Which half of the concluding sentence do you choose to focus on: “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime”? or “it also does not exonerate him”?
Those negatives leave plenty of room for misunderstanding and misuse, as do the many qualifiers before them. Even the first word of that last sentence, “Accordingly,” requires readers to process a subtle interpretation of which preceding statements affect the report’s conclusions and in what ways.
Most sentences are like that, with even the most transparent requiring interpretation. “I know where you live.” Is that a statement that I don’t need to give you my address? Or is it a threat?
4. Writing lacks face-to-face contact.
The good thing about writing is that the audience doesn’t have to be present. Writing carries facts, ideas, and experiences well beyond the moment, well beyond this place and time, leaving a lasting record that can be experienced by strangers in the future.
The bad thing about writing is that the audience doesn’t have to be present. There’s no feedback loop, no immediate audience to offer reactions or ask questions. No chance for the writer to discover a misunderstanding or misinterpretation and correct it (at least not until the work’s revised edition).
Writing allows no reading of facial expression or body language, no use of impassioned intonation or leaning forward to convey intensity or to persuade. For a special counsel’s report, that’s probably a good thing, as Mueller clearly believed. For those deciding the country’s future, writing leaves something to be desired. Hence the requests for Mueller to testify before Congressional committees.
In the end, Mueller’s written words couldn’t speak for themselves
Because writing and speaking are different
When I teach scientists and other researchers how to write up their research results, I teach them ways of managing that cognitive load, the amount of brain work required of readers, tips like:
But sometimes, even the most well-crafted, information-managed writing remains challenging and needs to be unpacked. Sometimes, dense writing requires expansion or elaboration.
And sometimes the situation requires that writing shift to speaking, as the Mueller report and testimony reveal:
For managers conveying news or inspiring loyalty, for teachers insisting on in-person and not just online class time, for writers deciding when and how to follow up their publications, and for special counsels who want the work to just speak for itself,
It pays to understand the limitations of writing and why, sometimes, words can’t speak for themselves.
In my last post, I wrote about the power of pronouns and especially the power of “we” to include some people and exclude others. Today, I’m exploring the pronoun “they” and its power to separate as well as gather.
That’s what pronouns do.
As I wrote in the last post, prompted by a column by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
Pronouns reveal the unconscious nature of our language, words we human beings use automatically without struggling to choose just the right word. But sometimes we who care about being aware should choose those pronouns more deliberately. It may take someone else pointing out when we are using pronouns to exclude without awareness. And we definitely need those like Pitts to call out others using pronouns to exclude through prejudice.
Connie Schultz called out the current president for referring to Puerto Ricans as “they,” and she explains how it reveals his racism and his unwillingness to include Puerto Ricans as Americans. It reveals, in my terms, his unwillingness to include Puerto Ricans as “we.”
Donald Trump is dumping again on Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and remains in dire need of help that has never come. “I’ve taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever,” Trump said last week. “They’ve got to spend the money wisely. They don’t know how to spend the money.”
Of course we English-speaking human beings need pronouns like “we” and “they” in our language to refer to groups, but people give pronouns added power by using pronouns to separate “us” from “them,” the insiders from the outsiders, the right-thinkers from the wrong-thinkers. Americans from non-Americans.
Notice how different his statement would have been if he had included Puerto Ricans as “us”
“We’ve got to spend our money wisely in Puerto Rico.”
It might still have been just as wrong-headed a statement about the problems in Puerto Rico (as Schultz points out, Puerto Rico has received only about a quarter of the money allocated since the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017). But it would have been a statement about “our” problems and “our” actions, not some other “they” who don’t know how to spend the money “we” so generously give them.
Just like “we,” everyone uses “they” to refer to groups, but some “they”s mean more than others. Think about all the times you’ve heard or read someone describe some other group of people about whom they disapprove. It’s always about a “they”
“They” don’t know how to spend money
Well, some of them don't, are, and must be--maybe. But some of the individuals those statements lump together? Nope
You probably noticed that I lumped together some obviously prejudiced, racist, sexist, homophobic, political “they” statements with some seemingly less charged. I’m guessing you thought of “these kids today” (said in a growly low codger voice) spending all their time on their phones. Those “they” statements, too, lump together individuals who behave quite differently, who have different motivations and backgrounds, who are minimized by being separated out as “they.”
Every time people use “they” it creates a group who is not “me” or “you.” There’s a reason “they” is called a third-person pronoun. Not the center of the universe, the first person who matters, “I.” Not the people I know and recognize and speak to, the second person in the room, “you.” But the people outside this room, people being talked about by “me” and “you.”
[Don’t get me started on other possible uses of “you,” especially as in “you people,” as a speaker recently referred to my colleagues and me. That’s just talking about “them” but to their faces, as people at the receiving end of discrimination all their lives know far better than I do.]
Sometimes “they” refers to a well-defined and specific group. Sometimes it’s more insidious.
It’s one thing to say about my friends’ children, “They treated her very well on Mother’s Day,” another to say, “Children treat their parents so well. They are such a blessing.” Well, some are, some aren’t. It’s one thing to say about Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin, and other parents who bought their children’s way into preferred universities, “They are cheating.” It’s another thing to say, “Wealthy people—They think they are above the law.” I imagine some do, some don’t. Even when people are clearly referring to a category to which they don’t belong—as, say, my talking about rich people—the very act of creating a “they” is potentially harmful, a lumping together of individuals that we language-users need to be more aware of.
Who do we think of as “they”? Who doesn’t belong to “us”?
Notice your own use of “they” for a week, or for one day. Most often I’m guessing you’ll be referring to specific people—innocent, innocuous. Occasionally, perhaps, you’ll be creating an other, a group of “them” who are not like “you” or “us.”
Do you see what you’re doing there?
Becoming aware of language is tough. It starts, I think, with noticing other people’s language. Check out who is “we” and “they” in letters to the editor, political tweets, mission statements, office hallway conversations. Maybe then notice your own work or family conversations. Can you name the individuals you’re talking about, and are you saying something true about those individuals? Or are you getting glimpses into your own categories, your own ways of grouping people who are not like you?
That’s what pronouns do.
That’s what we all do, whether we notice it or not.
Let’s become an “us,” people who notice our “we”s and “they”s, who notice how others separate others from themselves. Maybe we even start to call out some of “them” who are using “they” and “we” insidiously.
Do you see what we could do there?