Posted on 12 January 2010

So, recent discussion all over the place—from bad word choices of senators to discussion of the meaning of Holmes and Avatar—have gotten me thinking about the concept of messages.  What is a story supposed to say?  What did the author want it to say, and what did the author end up saying?  They aren’t always the same.

I’ll focus on Avatar, which is funny ‘cause I haven’t seen it.  I almost want to just to look for all the messages within, but it can be boiled down to a quick summary.  Hero’s world wants to invade Native’s world.  Hero becomes a native as a spy, ends up turning completely native, fights off uncompassionate home world.  This story has been done so much that it’s even a Disney movie.  Now, what was the creator of this particular story trying to say?  I’ve heard no less than three explanations.

1) It is a direct re-creation of the Last of the Mohicans/Dances with Wolves story, where the aliens are native Americans and the humans are the “The White Man.”
2) It is an anti-technology piece about the price of expansionist industrialism and the loss simpler, more holistic morality.  Of course nature wins of the industrialists because is more pure.
3) It is a war between Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and Fantasy wins because it is more appealing and hopeful where Sci-Fi is typically grim and pessimistic.

So, what did James Cameron want?  Honestly, I think he just wanted an awesome looking movie.  So how did all these other levels and messages get in?  Because he didn’t even think about them.  It is kind of like my earlier comments on racist stereotypes.  To make an Asian use a katana just because they are Asian is imbedding meanings you never meant to put there.  And just because you didn’t “mean it” doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Now, I’m going to go right and say that this irks me on two levels.  The first is that people can’t just accept that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, the second is that apparently I can’t either.  Why do authors (until recently because of super-awareness of the issue) typically write heroes of the same race, religion (or level of conviction), and gender as themselves?  Are we trying to say that white agnostic men (in my case) are the superior hero and neener-neener to anyone else?  No, not really.  We are just following the pre-coded paths in our thought process where we don’t even think about “what would the effect be if the protagonist was a woman, or a minority, or a different religion, etc.”  Again, this is changing, even in myself.  I have written a minority hero (at least in his world), and I have written religious heroes and heroines.  But I always have to think about it.  The default settings are what they are, just like in a video game, and if I’m lazy, I will use them.  And that, unfortunately, can be an endorsement of them.

A friend of mine commented that race is a myth, an imaginary thing made up for various reasons.  He may be right, but racism is hardly a myth, even if what it focuses on is, and it extends into everything.  I’m not going to say writing a “minority” piece is going to make something instantly good fiction, or something that is riddled with “lazy stereotypes” is instantly bad, but I do think in general at least a little thought needs to be put into realizing exactly what trope you are using, and if you really want (or care) if that message is carried through along with anything else.  A neglect to can make your entire story completely off base.  As a closing example, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which created a public outcry over the quality of meat and food in processing plants, was supposed to make people angry over the treatment of immigrants.  It caused the FDA to be made, but immigrants were still treated like mud.  Funny, ne?

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