Hello, my fair readers! Welcome to today’s reflection on storytelling as a writer and audience member.
I am going to try to stick to the usual educational tone of these posts. Honestly, though? This is a subject that’s been increasingly angering me recently. Fair warning that we may devolve into rant mode at some points.
Without further ado, buckle up for some reflection on the dangerous nature of thematic statements in some recent big-name science fiction/superhero movies and shows.
What is Theme?
This word gets tossed around a lot. That means it can mean different things to different people. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to use “theme” as meaning “the central question(s) about the human condition that a story explores.”
By nature, questions are not answers. Themes ask questions and explore different sides of the question through the use of character development, conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, and narrative perspective.
However, most stories will come to some answer about their thematic question. This conclusion is what I will call the “thematic statement.” The thematic statement is basically the moral or lesson the writers want their audience to take away regarding the particular theme or themes that were explored.
We all have our worldviews. Part of the purpose of telling stories is to share our worldview with others. Part of the purpose of experiencing stories is to grow more aware of different worldviews or even have our worldviews changed by exposure to others.
What has made me angry recently is recognizing that a number of our (at least geek, but increasingly mainstream) culture’s most influential storytellers are either unaware of how to consistently develop the theme statements they want to make (I hope this is the case) or are ACTIVELY trying to feed their audiences harmful theme statements.
The Weavers’ Blessing
When I wrote my first published work, The Weavers’ Blessing, I was a college kid with little formal training in writing. I wrote a story I thought was fun, trying to “fix” the problematic aspects I saw in many Snow White retellings while retaining the heart of it. I confidently thought to myself that there weren’t really any theme statements, it was just a fun story.
I still remember the moment one of my new coworkers read it, sat down beside me in the lunch room, and said, “I was so fascinated by the theme of our impact on nature that you wrote in The Weavers’ Blessing! How did you decide to develop that message?”
As soon as he said it, I knew that, yes, that was indeed a theme that got explored throughout the novella, with a clear thematic statement that we are responsible for the health of the natural world around us, that the way we treat humans directly affects the way we treat the land humans live on. I’m deeply thankful this is a theme statement that I can get behind; my ignorance could have led to so much worse of a message. This experience has stuck with me ever since, sobering me with the reality that I need to be aware of and careful about what my stories say.
My point in telling you this story is this: the necessity of learning to write theme statements intentionally is an elementary part of learning the craft of writing. Baby authors learn it before getting very far, even if they are indie authors.
So we should expect seasoned storytellers, who get paid the big bucks, to be masters at this, right?
If only that were the case.
Recent Theme Statements
Let’s take a look at several stories from popular franchises that have released in the last few years. My focus is going to be a bit limited, because I limit the amount of time I spend watching stories (TV and movies are great, and I love them in moderation, but more time consuming means less time with my family and my own stories).
I will be giving spoilers for the stories discussed. If you wish to avoid spoilers, skip the heading for that story.
Spider-man: Far From Home
Spider-Man’s second solo movie in MCU focused on a very interesting thematic question through its antagonist Quentin Beck: What should workers do when the company they work for is taking advantage of them?
At first, it seems Quentin is the leader and spokesman of a collection of his fellow workers, who are seeking justice in the way they see fit. That *could* have posed so many interesting perspectives on the theme!
Instead, half-way through the movie, Quentin changes from a normal guy into a psychopath. He becomes someone with no sense that it is wrong to endanger innocent bystanders, to attempt to murder a child who was not the one taking advantage of him in the first place.
As a result? The theme statement of this movie became “Only psychopaths would attempt to call attention to the evils of an abusive corporation; protestors are evil people who will harm innocents to get what they want.”
The Star Wars Sequels
Listen, so many people have gone into great detail about the many problems of the Star Wars sequels. I’m only going to focus on one theme here. But if you want more, I highly recommend The Closer Look’s “Star Wars: How to Kill a Franchise” video.
One of the many, many questions asked in this trilogy is about romantic love, seen through the relationships of Leia and Han and, more importantly, of Rey and Kylo Ren. As Rey is the main protagonist and Ren the only consistent antagonist, their relationship and the text’s commentary on it comprise the backbone of what the story’s theme statement about romantic love will be.
The text clearly conveys the perspective that Ren is passionate about Rey, that they both have strong feelings of some sort for each other, and at the end that their love is stronger than death and therefore a beautiful, perfect thing. Many audiences, especially younger or those from backgrounds without great examples of romantic love, went away with the belief that this relationship was good and something to be held as a personal model.
HOWEVER, this relationship is deeply abusive. Ren tortures Rey, seeks to harm and kill her, continually attempts to manipulate her into doing what he wants despite her clear wishes to the contrary, doesn’t respect Rey’s personal convictions, and doesn’t respect Rey’s boundaries. This is textbook abuse. And the movies never acknowledge it as such in any meaningful way.
The real theme statement about romantic love in the Star Wars sequels is this: “It’s okay for your romantic partners to treat you terribly, because all that matters is your feelings. Maybe someday they will change and save you instead of being abusive.”
On one level, WandaVision was a show about processing grief. It was beautiful to see the messiness of that process given space.
The problematic elements of the theme statement came out at the end of the show. Throughout the series, the audience slowly realized that Wanda was controlling thousands of residents in a town against their will, forcing them to live out her fantasy. In the end, we learn, not only did she strip them of their autonomy, they also had nightmares every time she slept. Their children were separated from their parents. It was a horrific situation.
When Wanda finally releases them and seems to come to terms with her grief, do the townspeople get any justice? Does Wanda have to face real consequences for the torture she inflicted on thousands of bystanders?
Instead, Monica Rambeau comments, “They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them.” The way she says it implies that the townspeople should be grateful to Wanda for choosing to give up her fantasy with a fake version of Vision—thankful for the fantasy in which the townspeople were turned into her living puppets and suffered greatly because of it.
The authors could have turned even this around by making Wanda acknowledge that they had absolutely no need to thank her; that she should not be celebrated for massively abusing her powers. Does she? Nope, she says, “It wouldn’t change how they see me.”
The bad consequence Wanda faces for stripping thousands of their free will and torturing them for months was they don’t like her anymore.
The text implies that the townspeople thinking differently of Wanda after this experience is a bad thing, that it’s sad they won’t view her as a hero now.
In other words, the theme statement of WandaVision is that harming other people while processing your grief is okay; they should thank you for it.
The Closer Look has another excellent video about the problems in the theme about justice/facing your past in Black Widow. Natasha’s relationship with her “parents” is what infuriates me the most, though.
The beginning of the film takes a serious, understated tone in establishing an undercover “family” that child Natasha experienced for a time. It gives an honest view of a family that is really messed up underneath, but at least on the surface for a while seems supportive. Natasha’s “parents” really do seem to be doing everything they can to protect her and her “sister” Yelena, at least until we discover that her “father” Alexi is handing the girls over to the Red Room to be manipulated, tortured, brainwashed, and forced into becoming assassins.
Throughout the rest of the film, we learn that both “parents” were complicit in trafficking her and dozens of other young girls. Not only that, but her “mom” Melina willingly aided in mind-controlling those girls, and seems to have enjoyed it, as we see her take pleasure in torturing a pig through mind control right in front of Natasha and Yelena.
In a movie about Natasha having to face the red in her past, it made sense for her to re-encounter her “family” years later. Rather than continuing to give an honest portrayal of Natasha dealing with the trauma those two adults who should have protected her put her through, the movie takes a sharp tonal shift. No longer are Melina and Alexi treated seriously; now their abuse is a funny punchline. When voicing real pain from what they suffered at the hands of Melina and Alexi, and afterward because of their negligence, Natasha and Yelena are treated by the text as if they’re whiny teenagers making too big of a deal about their parents.
By the end of the movie, Natasha is working with both Melina and Alexi, and suddenly she’s affectionate toward them. Yet she sees no remorse from them, especially from Melina. Nothing in the movie showed anything like a change in Melina. She is still the same evil woman who stripped innocent girls of their freedom and minds, who participated in mutilating their bodies and turning them into killers, but for some reason Natasha and the audience are supposed to be okay with her anyways.
The theme statement of Black Widow in regards to the theme of difficult childhood experiences with abusive parents? Abusive parents are funny and really were good people all along, so you should get over it.
These are the messages we and our fellow movie-goers/TV-watchers passively consume. These messages shape the way we view our own similar experiences with abusive relationships, unfair work conditions, managing our emotions, etc. We are letting ourselves be shaped by lies that will make it harder for us to acknowledge our need for help in healing from our wounds, that will blind us to the very real ways we harm each other.
Superhero stories—really, most stories—are meant to inspire us to be better. They give us heroes, often flawed like us, and show us how we can be more loving, confident, protective, and noble. They should not be telling us that we deserve to be mistreated, that it’s good to hurt others.
If you are an audience member, you can do two things. First, we as the audience must think critically about the stories we encounter. Yes, stories are a form of escapism. I love them for that. There is nothing better than letting go of your worries for a time to enter a new world and experience all it has to offer. BUT we do ourselves real harm if we choose our escapist mediums unwisely. Those stories we sought for respite from our pains may only deepen the lies we believe.
Second, we need to exercise our financial power as consumers to demand better stories from the leading storytellers of our time. We have the power to influence what stories get told. Let’s stop idly accepting harmful entertainment and require beautiful, encouraging, wise stories.
If you are an author, I end with this plea: Please invest real, honest time into considering what your story’s theme statements are. Think about the consequences those messages will have for your audience, which will often be full of hurting people subconsciously absorbing your messages.
We are responsible for the consequences of our words and stories. Good intentions don’t excuse the real harm we do when we paste together sloppy, evil messages.