Friday, January 8, 2016

The Death of Subtext

I'm a big fan of Undertale and Steven Universe. These are both super fun and cool experiences (video game and TV show, respectively) that are solid, expertly made pieces of art with subversive qualities thrown in for good measure. I have basically no complaints with either one.

However, both Undertale and Steven Universe have a reputation for having incredibly annoying fans. A while back I made a joke about how Gamergate supporters resembled nothing so much as the more witness-happy sects of Christianity, like Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. These groups are often mocked for their enthusiasm for spreading the gospel of their cause, and in my experience the fandom of Steven Universe and Undertale use similar tactics.

It's not simply that these things are popular. There is a certain amount of backlash to be expected from popular media, but there's a fundamental difference between the way, say, Star Wars or Final Fantasy 7 fans talk about their fandom versus the way Steven Universe or Undertale fans talk about their fandom. With Star Wars, it's enough that it's "cool," and there's generally no imperative for others to see it. One does not preach Star Wars, because Star Wars has nothing to preach. Its fandom spreads naturally.

Steven Universe and Undertale have a message, though, and their fandoms want to spread that message. It crosses the line from the natural circulation of Star Wars to the more jarring circulation of Mormonism when the people who talk about it stop thinking it's "cool" and start thinking it's "Important." Which is tragic, because the actual experience they want to support handles that message in a far less jarring manner than its fans do.

All that to say, today I'd like to talk about subtlety.

Storytelling is an incredibly powerful way to spread a message. Humanity has been imparting lessons in the form of stories since long before recorded history, in the oral traditions on ancient civilizations.

These days we have more forms or storytelling than ever before: books, movies, television, radio, video games, and more. As such, we're basically bombarded with stories of all sorts; some that wish to teach us a lesson, some that wish only to entertain, and so on.

One of the most powerful elements of storytelling is subtext. Unlike explicit messages, which the story simply tells the audience and the audience can either accept or reject, subtext isn't something the audience is supposed to challenge. It's generally something that's simply understood in the context of the story; something the audience simply has to understand in order for the story to make sense.

As such, subtext maintains this advantage over an overt message only so long as it remains implicit rather than explicit. So long as it's implicit it's much less likely to be challenged, but as soon as a message becomes explicit you've lost those who are least receptive to the message.

Unfortunately, this power is entirely lost in the culture of the Internet. Rebecca Sugar did a wonderful job of subtly normalizing concepts of consent, non-binary gender identity, and same-sex relationships within the context of her show about alien gem-creatures, magic, and children. However, as soon as the Internet gets hold of the episodes, all pretense is lost in discussions about how magnificently Important the show is for the cause of feminism, homosexuality, and gender identity. The grace of the show is lost and, with it, a decent amount of its effectiveness. Which is unfortunate, since I imagine Rebecca didn't set out to preach to the choir.

Not that I really blame the fans for doing what they do. Art deserves to be talked about, especially the message that art aims to send. It just frustrates me that the subtext can't stay subtext just a little bit longer.

On the bright side, I expect that more and more media will feel comfortable including similar issues in the future. If so, perhaps the novelty of shows that depict women and queer people and relationships in a positive way will go away, and these things will no longer be Important or Impressive. Perhaps, soon, they'll be normal. So, in that sense, perhaps the death of subtext isn't as tragic as it seems. I'm hopeful, at least.


  1. I'd contend that Star Wars fandom is only so passive because the default assumption is that everyone has seen it (since so many have). In my experience, anybody saying they haven't seen Star Wars is met with something along the lines of, "What a travesty! This must be remedied at once!"

    1. That could very well be the case. I think there's still a difference, though. Of course people like to share things they think is cool with their friends, but I don't know if Star Wars fans have a tendency to come off as proselytizing--not as much as Steven Universe fans and Undertale fans do.

      But that's just my experience. I accept that I could be wrong about that.