So I went to see the newest Transformers movie, and as expected, it was a ginormous hot mess of violence and Mark Wahlberg and big metal monkeys with really sexy voices. (I did miss Starscream’s original voice, though. Steve Blum was so deliciously eeeebil…)
As I was watching this hot mess, which was all special effects and no script, one of the things that came to me was how much the movie relied on certain expectations that we, as Americans have, of our own country and the people who live here. By capitalizing on our expectations, the movie was able to do a lot of storytelling with very little dialog or even screen time. These are things we might not even process (although with the crowd I write for, I suspect you processed the messages and disdained them as soon as they rolled across the screen) but they are, nonetheless, in this multi-bazillion dollar story, seen by millions of people, not all of whom are schooled at mining the subtext from the bright shiny explosions.
If I was an alien from outer space, I could draw some pretty interesting conclusions from the assumptions this movie makes—are you ready?
· The people who should be in charge of our government are misled by evil.
· The people who are making scientific discoveries are misled by ego.
· The real people in charge of our government have allowed their egos to make them evil.
· 90% of the people in charge will sell out the human race for a quick dip into the money pool.
· 90% of the people not in charge will help the people in charge sell out the human race because they’re too stupid to know better.
· Poverty is something that happens to people who don’t try hard enough.
· Only red-blooded Americans can fight off the bad guys with guns.
· All teenaged girls are silly, self-absorbed, and hate their fathers for not giving them everything they want.
· All fathers are blind to what their teenaged girls really want and are obstructionists to true love because they just don’t understand.
· You have to be an alien to be human, because the human beings just don’t do a stellar job of it.
Are you frightened yet? Because I’m saying right now that the subtext is scaring the hell out of me.
Subtext is the message that is told by the characters’ behavior and how that behavior is rewarded in a story. Does that sound simplistic? It is. In fact it’s so simple a child can get it.
Now, when I went to see this movie, my husband’s friend had brought his six year old. As we were leaving the theater, the little man was so excited. “Did you see that? Optimus Prime just split his face in two. Because he was the bad guy. Because he was gonna kill the world, and all the bad robots want to kill the world, and Optimus won’t let them.”
So, basic violence is totally justifiable in the name of good guys and bad guys.
And there you have it, folks. Our country in a nutshell, in a two and a half hour CGI explosion with minimal dialog and only one shot of Mark Wahlberg shirtless. (I am still bitter about that, by the way.)
Now, some of you may be thinking, “Uhm, yeah, but Amy! It was a schlock movie—we don’t go to those for deep thought and subtext!”
Well, yeah. But think about it. More people will see that movie in one weekend than saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in its entire run. When a popular movie gives damaging subtext (Women are objects? Men are bad parents?) everybody sees it and thinks it’s okay.
And the same can be said for popular fiction in general, and romance in particular.
It’s something that both readers and writers need to be aware of.
Yes, I know. The worst snobs are literary snobs—and they laugh at romance and call it a guilty pleasure and housewife porn and readers feel like overemotional sheep for reading it. Hell, even when the literati try to give it props, they say something backhanded and condescending and completely infuriating, so it’s obvious that the people “in charge” of reading subtext and telling us what our fiction means aren’t going to see it, so why should we worry about the meta message of our highly disdained literary art form and what it says to the world?
Because it matters.
A very successful author of Young Adult vampire novels was once asked if it bothered her that her books were telling young girls that it was okay to be stalked and a woman’s power was in her absence. Her response was that it was only fiction. Who cared?
Think about that. How many people read that book—which was also made into a hugely successful movie franchise. How many young women spent their formative years believing that it was okay if an older man suddenly decided what was best for them, and that “I’m drawn irresistibly to you” was a good excuse for a girl to forfeit all of her power to somebody else.
That is the thought terrifies me about damaging subtext.
I know that much of my audience has already won the subtext wars. In fact, it seems to me that most M/M readers read the genre for the positive subtext alone. But that doesn’t mean we can let their guard down when it comes to our own writing.
My primary editor is Canadian, and there is nothing more eye-opening than when our subtexts clash.
I cannot count the number of times when one of my characters has done something—say, investigate a crime, make a devil’s bargain or commit murder perhaps? And her response in the margins is “Why don’t they call the police?”
And my response—always surprised, because quite frankly it didn’t occur to me—is “People do that?”
And suddenly I read between my own lines and realize, “Hey. I don’t like authority. In fact, I distrust it with a deep-seated hatred, fear, and loathing. I need to be aware of that.” And sure enough, in my next work, I do make an effort to have an authority figure who isn’t a self-serving dick. (This doesn’t always work out well. I’m sure I need therapy, but I don’t trust the health care system either.)
When I was growing up, I was always aware of money, and how much it cost to do things my friends seemed to take for granted—braces, having a car, new clothes. As a result, much of my subtext deals with people fighting for some economic stability, and for the education for upward mobility.
When I taught high school in a socio-economically diverse neighborhood, I got to know students, sometimes visited their homes, attended their baby showers, their graduation parties, and once or twice, even their funerals. When I write a character of color, I am keenly aware of the disadvantages this character would face in a society that doesn’t admit there are still racial dividing lines. I watched politicians and administrators tap-dance around the education gap, refusing to answer the best and brightest of their student body when posed with the question, and you’d better believe that comes out in my subtext.
As the first member of two out of three family branches to get a Bachelor’s degree, I’m keenly aware that as much as a humanities education can give a person, it can strike a dividing line between him or her and her family. Yes—that subtext comes through as well.
In short, if the essence of subtext comes down to what a character learns, how a character’s behavior is rewarded, and the gap between what the author knows and what the character knows, then my consistent meta-message is going to be the things that myself have learned or believe in.
Every time I write a book—even a happy, flirty little novella who’s sole purpose is to relieve me from some of the strain of writing painful, serious angst—a part of myself is going to be laid bare, and I’m going to say “Look, this is me, and these are the things that I believe in!”
So I can argue all I want about how good romance is just as important as literary fiction, and I’ve spent a good amount of my non-fiction writing time making a case for just that, but even if I’m never taken seriously, I need to remember it for myself.
Yes, I write romance, and the world doesn’t always take that seriously—but I also write subtext, and those lessons make an impression. In fact, very often, the subtext makes more of an impression than the actual story. I would guess that many of those girls who read the YA vampire story are going to be very disappointed when their first boyfriend is either A. A simple, fallible human being but not all full of “the answers” and big decisions either, or B. A controlling stalker and therefore a nightmare for her future, her self-esteem, and her capacity to have a healthy relationship forever after. I’m pretty damned sure that the five-year-old who watched Transformers is going to remember that all government members and scientists are bad guys for a really long time.
And that’s the supertext that storytellers need to remember. As writers, it’s as important to tell a valuable story underneath the story as it is to tell an engaging tale of hope, adventure, and love.