Everyone has their own experience with and definition of family –some positive, some negative. In the media, however, we often only see certain portrayals such as a positive family with one mom, one dad, and children, or a broken family who all work together to change their ways in the end. We also frequently see quarrelsome siblings, or children who don’t get along with their caring parent due to nothing more than mysterious attitude problems. When not absent entirely from a work, characters with non-traditional families or with unstable or unsupportive home lives are often portrayed as angsty, pitiful, and even evil. On top of this, a large number of narratives establish positive or negative relationships as a background idea without exploring the factors behind those structures.
In his hit animated series Gravity Falls, Alex Hirsch tackles the complicated issues that shape families and addresses the fact that not all families are ideal, but that doesn’t make them bad.
Welcome to August’s OWLS Tour
Last month marked my first post with the Otaku Warriors for Liberty and Self-respect (OWLS) blogging project. The group of bloggers and vloggers work to promote the acceptance and inclusion of all individuals regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, or disabilities, highlighting the respect and kindness due to every individual. Every month, the OWLS team uses anime and other media to explore a central theme that promotes diversity and equality. I feel proud to work with the OWLS team, so keep an eye out for future posts exploring important social issues.
The August blog tour focuses on the theme “bloodlines,” discussing the importance of family bonds. We will explore a wide range of different structures, and examine how those relationships shape identity, how individuals define family, what underlying factors exist for unhealthy or unhappy home lives, and other related topics.
Earlier this week, Mechanical Anime Reviews wrote a great blog covering our theme in Mobile Suit Gundam. Coming up next, keep an eye out for a tour post from Let’s Talk Anime exploring My Hero Academia. I hope that you will consider checking them out!
My post turned out a bit longer than intended, as we selected a rather nebulous topic this month. There are found-families, dysfunctional families, happy families, and many others in-between to consider. Gravity Falls does a great job of representing these bonds in many different ways throughout its run and I wanted to take the time to discuss several of them.
Spoiler Alert: Before you dive in to this post, please know that it contains spoilers for Gravity Falls. Although some spoilers are fine, and even add intrigue to a creative work, others can really take the surprise out of things meant to… well… surprise you. If you’re planning on watching Gravity Falls and somehow managed to avoid spoilers on the collective internet so far, I wanted to offer you the chance to avoid these spoilers as well. The most dangerous spoilers exist in the section “Toxicity at Home”.
Showcasing Positive Siblings
When it comes to depicting blood relations, the media loves the combative siblings Trope. Many narratives involve siblings who do not get along, and either allow their quarrelsome tendencies to cause trouble throughout the story, or use it as the primary dysfunction that needs to change by the end. Although not inherently bad in and of itself, writers use this trope frequently enough that it often paints a picture in our collective consciousness of what siblings naturally act like. In some cases, it alienates siblings who do not fight on a regular basis.
In an interview with the A.V. club, Alex Hirsch admits that he always felt like TV siblings were scripted to fight more often than not. When he designed Mabel and Dipper, he used his own positive relationship with his sister as the model. Growing up, they didn’t associate with the combative portrayal of siblings and twins in the media. He didn’t anticipate the number of fans who reached out to thank him for portraying positive sibling interactions, an element absent from many narratives, and their responses surprised him. In the interview, he says “When I started the show, I didn’t originally begin with a conscious effort to do that. My conscious effort was, ‘Oh, I want to make it like me and my sister, and I’ll make it funny.’ It was intuitive and natural. I didn’t start with the mission statement of, ‘I’m going to fix sibling relationships in television.’” By creating the Pines twins, Hirsch offered his audience a new way to think about siblings in the media.
Early on in production, Hirsch found the combative siblings trope so deeply ingrained in people’s minds that his crew jumped to the conclusion that it also applied to Mabel and Dipper. To negate this, he “had to come up with a ’10 commandments’ of how Dipper and Mabel act around each other. [He] realized how other people were writing twins and siblings [didn’t] feel true to [himself].” The trope rang falsely with him and he wanted to avoid it.
In the end, his efforts paid off, producing a set of twins with an incredible bond. Mabel and Dipper build their relationship on mutual love, respect, and understanding. When rough times get one of them down, the other is right there to try and put things right. Does that mean that the ‘Mystery Twins’ never fight? Absolutely not. Siblings fight. That’s just part of the package, and pretending otherwise is problematic. It’s how the siblings handle the fight afterwards that matters.
In the episode “The Time Traveler’s Pig” (check out that fine literary allusion!), we see a strong example of the bond between Mabel and Dipper. In the beginning, Dipper loses his summer crush to a moody teenager when a fair game goes horribly awry. We see Mabel try to cheer him up, encouraging him to pick himself back up and try again. His “try again” comes in an unexpected and literal form when they encounter an incompetent time traveler named Blendin Blandin and “borrow” his time travel device. Mabel eagerly encourages her brother to succeed, cheering him on from the sidelines as she works on a problem of her own: winning her prized fair pig over and over again from another game.
After multiple devastating failures, Dipper begs Mabel to participate in one final attempt and she eagerly agrees. When it works, she celebrates with him, and leaves him to revel in his happiness while she dashes off to win her pig for the billionth time. This time, however, she finds that someone else zipped in and won the pig before her. In helping her brother succeed, she loses her pig.
Now the roles reverse. Mabel runs to her brother and begs for his help in winning her pig. Dipper refuses, unwilling to reverse time and spoil his victory. At an impasse, the siblings fight. In the end, Dipper declares himself the winner and makes it clear that they will not go back and win Mabel’s pig. Devastated, Mabel falls into her own state of despair. Dipper tries to reason with her, telling her that she’ll recover in a day or so, and even zips forward in time to prove it to her. When he arrives, he finds the opposite. Whether from her brother’s betrayal by refusing to help her or from the loss of her pig, Mabel is heartsick even a month later.
Heaving a heavy sigh, Dipper realizes that he should come to her rescue like he knows she would do (and did do, earlier in the episode) for him. He decides that preventing his summer crush from getting a boyfriend is not as important as his sister’s happiness. He reverses the damage and allows the timeline to follow the original course of events. Mabel, somehow remembering their adventures that day (possibly due to some sort of time magic influencing her brain), tackles him and thanks him for reuniting her with her pig. In homage to their connection, she sends her pig in to sabotage the would-be teenage suitor in order to make Dipper’s own loss less depressing.
Throughout the episode, we see the bond that these siblings share. They are dedicated to helping one another, but not to unhealthy extents that blind them to their own individual needs. Each is their own person, but will make sacrifices for one another and repay sacrifices made for them in their own unique ways. These dynamics remain true throughout the series in a variety of scenarios.
(If you want to avoid significant Gravity Falls spoilers and haven’t stopped reading, here is your jumping off point. Thank you for sticking with me at the risk of spoiling the surprise! You might consider skipping down to the “Celebrating Families” section if you want to continue reading spoiler-free. Move quickly, though, because there are images here shortly that will spoil things as well!)
Toxicity at Home
Mabel and Dipper’s interactions show that they belong to a stable, happy family. They support and love one another, seemingly unconditionally. The various medias around us often portray similar relationships, leaving out others. When included, negative blood relationships are often either the mark of villains, or else act as a convenient plot device that characters must resolve in order to overcome other problems. Unfortunately, these dynamics are not as easy to solve in real life, and often go unresolved. Additionally, many narratives do not address the underlying issues that contribute to these negative dynamics.
Take a look at the Pines household. No, not Mabel and Dipper, or their parents. Look back at a time before the series begins, way back to a dingy apartment in a little New Jersey beach town. In “A Tale of Two Stans,” viewers learn that Grunkle Stan(ley) has a twin brother named Stanford (Ford). Growing up, the two enjoy a bond similar to Mabel and Dipper’s. They support one another, fending off bullies and daydreaming about grand treasure-hunting adventures. In high school, however, the two experience an extreme falling out when their future plans change abruptly.
Ford receives an offer for a spot in a prestigious university, and Stan realizes that if accepted, his brother will leave him behind. He feels proud of his brother, but ultimately dwells on the concept of abandonment. An act of unintended vandalism in which Stan breaks Ford’s experiment leads the school to withdraw the offer. The incident opens an irreparable rift between the Pines. This event breaks up the family, but I would argue that it wasn’t the only factor involved; it just opened the rift to irreparable proportions. Taking a look at their entire dynamic can help us understand the factors behind the dissolution of the Pines’ bonds.
We don’t really know the original Pines twins’ relationship with their parents, as they rarely interact on-screen. We see their parents for brief moments, long enough to learn about both of their somewhat dubious jobs and get a feel for their overall lack of stability. We don’t see any loving interactions between the couple, giving viewers the distinct sense that they are married but not close. One can only imagine the dismal support that they offer the boys.
The falling-out between the brothers comes as a result of fear and pride, but also relates to the household dynamics created by their parents. Growing up, Stan always experiences more success than his six-fingered nerd of a brother. He is bigger and stronger than his twin, and doesn’t get bullied by anyone. He feels empowered to protect his brother in a way that his parents never do. When they reach high school, however, the social pressures shift and Ford no longer needs Stan the same way that he did growing up. Ford discovers his own power, and Stan isn’t sure how to deal with it. On top of that, the potential suddenly displayed by one of their sons motivates the parents to dote on Ford, where they had neglected both sons before. They recognize him as the only member of the family with a real future, and intend to ride on his coattails at the cost of their less brilliant son.
Even without seeing more interactions between the parents and their children, it becomes clear that the couple created a toxic household. The series doesn’t go into great depth on the subject, but viewers can infer what type of parents the original Pines twins grew up with: Self-absorbed, only actively caring for successful children who they can live off of. The second that Ford’s scientific exploration catches the eye of someone bigger than himself, he becomes the sole focus of their parents’ affections. Stan, on the other hand, continues to receive indifferent treatment further complicated by the addition of negative feedback whenever his parents perceive that his actions might endanger their shiny new future. When kicking Stan out, the father tells him that he is a selfish son who does nothing but lie and cheat and ride on his brother’s coat tails. If this sounds familiar, it’s because that’s exactly what mom and dad are all about, but the man projects it onto his son. It is likely that he and his wife practice similar psychological games with both sons throughout their lives.
Blaming the misunderstanding between Stan and Ford for the family’s dissolution oversimplifies the real issues and underestimates the strength of familial bonds. A strong family with a good foundation will usually find a way to overcome such challenges and retain their positive relationships. With the Pines family, the parents did not create a strong foundation. The way that the couple quickly plop Ford onto a pedestal and kick Stan to the curb suggests that the twins most likely experienced similar situations throughout their whole lives, pitting them not only against each other, but against anybody more successful than themselves. That being the case, it would come as no surprise that one brother or the other would get pretty caught up when finally at the center of their parents’ attention.
With foundations like these, the family can’t hold up in the end. The twins don’t speak to one another for years, and when they finally do, the meeting results in a massive fight that ends with Ford’s accidental journey through the portal. Separated by time and space, the brothers are denied the ability to apologize to one another and the mounting betrayals stick firmly in their hearts.
Undeterred, and hopeful that his brother will finally give him a chance to explain and justify what happened in the past, Stan begins the long journey to bring his brother back. Stan sacrifices his treasure hunting dreams in order to dedicate several decades to bringing his brother back to Earth. Unfortunately, his actions don’t heal the rift between them because actions, no matter their intent, are just actions. The brothers must strip down their emotional barriers, journey beyond their own stubborn personalities, and discover mutual need before they can attempt to restore the bond they once shared.
Alex Hirsch does a great job of including a wide range of family types outside of the Pines family as well. He makes sure that fans see beyond the more commonly represented structures and relationships portrayed on TV.
Soos, the dedicated handyman of the Mystery Shack, has several uncommonly represented family structures. He lives with his grandmother, who has served as his guardian since childhood. The story never makes it clear what happened to his mother, but his father abandoned him. The event haunts him, but he lives a happy life with his new found-family: the Pines. He says on multiple occasions that Grunkle Stan is like a father to him. As an added element, his grandmother feels angry towards Soos’ father, muttering about the man being no good. She also alludes to trouble with Soos’ grandfather. When offered the suggestion that the grandfather might be in Heaven, the woman just shakes her head and says calmly that he’s… somewhere else.
We find another example with Robbie Valentino and his parents. Looking at the constantly angsty teenager, viewers might assume that he lives in an unhealthy or unsupportive family. This proves untrue, however. Robbie lives with supportive, cheerful, and kind parents (who also happen to run the funeral services in town). Having said this, I will acknowledge that outside of the world of narratives, seemingly positive family dynamics can hide much more troubling truths under the surface.
The relationship between Fiddleford McGucket and his son Tate offers us another, more heartbreaking look at blood bonds. For various reasons, McGucket rapidly declines into senility long before the Pines Twins’ epic summer, possibly while his son is fairly young. As a result, Tate has virtually no emotional connection with his kooky father. Unable to understand the man’s irrational behavior, Tate spends his time chasing McGucket away whenever he’s making a commotion. He treats his father like an animal, just like everyone else in town.
Another concerning dynamic comes from the Gleeful household. Li’l Gideon is a terror, and regularly screams at his nervous mother to the point of causing her breakdowns. The woman is so used to his bullying that she regularly shrinks away and keeps quiet. She buries herself in cleaning, trying to get through life without notice. It is also notable that Bud Gleeful, Li’l Gideon’s father, never interacts with the woman and never defends her from their son. It’s like she doesn’t exist. It is quite possible that Gideon’s mother learned her timid behavior long before the birth of her son, and that Gideon himself learned his abusive tendencies form none other than his father.
Gravity Falls offers us more examples of different family structures with characters such as Wendy Corduroy, Pacifica Northwest, and even Bill Cipher. Everywhere you look, there’s another example and another story to discover. Everyone has their own experiences with these bonds, and Alex Hirsch makes sure that the characters in his series represent more than just the typical portrayals that exist in many narratives. Whether you have a positive family relationship or a negative one, a large found-family or a small one, your experiences matter and you should never let media portrayals of one type of family structure tell you how to feel about your own.
Do you have any thoughts you want to share about Gravity Falls or this month’s OWLS theme, Bloodlines? Share them in the comments! You can also connect on Twitter at @Popliterature, or send a message on the “contact me” page.
And as always, if you have a literary device you want to know more about, or a game, comic, show, or movie that you want to see make an appearance on the blog, leave a shout-out in the comments!
On a tangentially related note, I wanted to give a shout-out to Cartoon Cravings for a fantastic blog recreating the question mark-shaped corndogs from “The Time Traveler’s Pig”. If you like seeing people recreate edible concoctions from your favorite cartoons, I recommend giving these thoughtful posts a read!