Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Live, Love, Laugh, and Stereotype?

In class we discussed Kinney's use of images to accompany his well-constructed story. We established that the cartoons enhance the words, work in tandem with them, and fill in gaps where words aren't enough. Dr. Ellis also pointed out that Kinney's use of stick figure style illustrations is in fact quite an intelligent and deliberate decision. The stick figure drawings make the characters more accessible to readers. Because Kinney uses stick figures rather than full illustrations, we are able to read ourselves into the story. We find similarities between ourselves, our friends, our families, and the simple drawings in the book. For example, when I read the part in the book about opening Christmas presents I could immediately relate to my own family experience, "I opened my gifts in the corner behind the couch, because I don't like opening gifts near Dad. Whenever someone opens a gift, Dad swoops right in and cleans up after them" (121). This is a simple moment in the text, and for more people it is probably not a particularly funny one. As soon as I read it, though, I thougth "HEY ! That's what my Dad does!." And I immediately pictured the wrapping paper cleanup tornado that my Dad morphs into every Christmas morning. The cartoon could have easily been depicting my brother and my Dad. Kinney keeps it simple in order to keep it relevant for all of his readers.

I don't think it's only the stick figure drawings that make this book so relatable to a wide variety of readers. I've realized that Kinney does an interesting thing with stereotypes in that he seems to use them to unite his audience, rather than mock or alienate them. This is a concept we've also discussed in relation to Amy Sedaris and one that I think applies to Maira Kalman as well. The fact that stereotypes can be used to bring unity is also the most surprising thing that I've learned this semester. Consider the characters in Kinney's novel: the wimpy kid, the annoying little brother, the mean older brother, the nerd, the bully, the well-meaning mom, the goofy dad, the weird friend. These are all character types that we are familiar with can can relate to. We all have some aspects of each of these types within us, just as Greg is part wimpy kid, part bully, part annoying little brother, and part mean older brother at the same time. The stereotypes help us relate to the story and come to full realization of its message. The middle school student stereotypes present in the book are not intended to make fun of and belittle middle school students, but to teach us something about life and about ourselves. The message in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" is ultimately about being a better person, and Kinney communicates this idea by using stereotypes rather than just perfect flawless characters. It's how he can show us what he wants us to learn, rather than tell us.

This is an idea we saw in Amy Sedaris's "I Like You." She also used stereotypes to create a point of entry and to unite people, to get them to say "I'm like that too!" When we read Sedaris we said that the character types she used--the businessman, the elderly, the wealthy relative--were really just a form of cultural shorthand. She used them to communicate to a larger audience. This is what Maira Kalman did with the "New Yorkistan" cartoon we looked at in class. Yes, she used stereotypes, but not in a way that was meant to harm anyone. She used them to make people laugh in a time of great pain and tragedy. Her stereotypes were a call to unite all groups of people during a healing process, the first step of which could be laughter. It surprises me that stereotypes can be used in this way rather than in the superiority model, but I think this use is present in many of the works we have read.

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