Monthly Archives: February 2015

Reviewing VeggieTales as an Atheist; Larry-Boy and the Fib From Outer Space

Larry-Boy!
Larry-Boy!

As I mentioned previously, both of the Larry-Boy episodes scared the crap out of youngster Lane. (I mean, there’s three of them, but only the first two were out when I was a kid.) The first one followed a format that I saw in a great number of kid’s morality plays. A normally honest kid is approached by a tiny little monster who urges them to lie, and when they give in, the tiny lie monster gets bigger and bigger, until finally it turns into a giant lie monster who destroys everything they have ever loved or cared about. Every single one of these stories terrified me, and while I can’t speak to the efficacy of this scared straight approach for kids in general, I ended up almost too honest; the “can’t lie very well even when it’s polite or appropriate sort.” On the other hand, some of that might have just been my general literal minded awkwardness.

In any case, this one begins with Larry telling Bob about an email he got from a kid who is tempted to lie to avoid trouble. To which Bob responds, “what is this email of which you speak?” and I started flailing because I just remembered that I was alive when the internet was a New Thing. In fact, I was fairly confused by and wary of it. Think Daisy from Downton Abbey’s first reaction to electricity and you’ve got young me and the internet. Eventually my youth group leader found out and sat me down, and said, “okay, let’s start with this thing called Google…”

Sorry, back to the episode. Larry begins a story about his alter-ego, Larry-Boy. A space alien crash lands in a small town, and Larry-Boy is called out to investigate, but before he can find it, it finds Jr. Asparagus, who has just broken his father’s collectible bowling plate. The alien introduces itself as Fibrilious Minimus, Fib for short, and convinces Jr. to blame his friend Laura. Jr.’s Father believes him, and Jr. and Fib go out to celebrate Jr.’s escape from consequences.

Don't worry kid, this won't lead to any of those "moral lessons" you're always going through.
Don’t worry kid, this won’t lead to any of those “moral lessons” you’re always going through.

At first things go well. Larry-Boy drives right past them, and completely fails to recognize the alien as an alien. Perhaps he mistakes Fib for a weird blackberry? He eventually goes home in frustration. Meanwhile, Jr. is confronted, because his lie got Laura in trouble. He makes up another lie, blaming her brother Lenny, and then another, blaming cow snatching aliens, and then suddenly Fib is 70 feet tall, stepping on cars, breaking down billboards and taunting Jr. in a really deep, menacing voice.

See? Scary!
See? Scary!

While Fib rampages, Larry-Boy is back home playing Candy Land, stuck in the Molasses Swamp for 38 consecutive turns. I hear you man. That game sucked. It lures you in with Candy Cane Forest and Gumdrop Mountain, and you dream of visiting these glorious locations, only to be shuffled around madly, skipping all the good places and getting stuck in all the cherry pitfalls. First you keep playing, hoping one day you will learn the secret that will at least get you to Candy Castle first, then slowly you realize, you never had a chance. The cards decide who wins. You were either destined to win, an empty victory signaling nothing but the capriciousness of fate, or you never even had a chance.

Where was I? Oh, right, the rampaging personified lie. Larry-Boy is rescued from the futility of Candy Land by his superheroic duty… which he is utterly useless at. He’s only got gadgets that he doesn’t actually know how to use, and that are in their testing phase, and that  Archibald Asparagus Alfred installed without labeling them, because he’s the worst sidekick ever. Larry-Boy ends up ensnared by Fib as well, who begins to eat him.

See? Scary!
See? Scary!

But all that haplessness had a point to it. As Alfred’s magical computer analysis determines, Larry-Boy can do nothing to stop Fib. Only Jr. Asparagus can. Luckily, because Fib decided to eat the harmless foe before the one who can actually destroy him, and because Fib has Larry-Boy hanging halfway out of his mouth and is kind of sucking on him instead of biting or swallowing him whole, Jr. is able to overhear the exposition. He realizes that if telling lies made Fib big, telling the truth will make him small. When he admits that he broke the plate, Fib shrinks down into nothing and Larry-Boy escapes unscathed (but with all of the credit for defeating Fib, because rule of funny).

Jr. apologizes to his Dad, who forgives him and decides that being hauled through town by a giant alien and nearly eaten is punishment enough. Man, that guy never has to parent! How did he get that gig?

The funny thing about this moral about lying is that it is, itself, something of a lie. Grown-ups tell lies all the time. Some of them are the polite, “your hair looks nice” kind of lies, others are just simplifications and omissions, and some are even to protect someone. For example, if you are ever in an abusive relationship, and realize you need to make preparations to leave, but that your abuser will flip out if they find out you are preparing to leave and might actually harm you, LIE TO THEM! Do not feel bad about protecting yourself from someone who would hurt you if they knew the truth.

Not all examples of okay lies are even that dramatic. I am transgender. People assume I’m not all the time, because I’ve been on T for a while and I pretty much look like a short cis man. While acceptance of trans people is on the rise and many people wouldn’t do anything bad to me if they knew the truth, and as a trans man I am not quite so stigmatized as trans women are, there is still a chance that I could get beaten up by people who know the truth. Those kinds of horrible people exist. Furthermore, quite apart from the physical danger, outing yourself as trans often invites a lot of rude and invasive questions, often ones that the asker doesn’t realize is rude and invasive, and while I do like being a trans educator sometimes I do like to make sure I’m in a good environment and headspace for that before it happens. So sometimes I let the assumption that I’m cis continue, until I’m ready to out myself. That’s not about deception, that’s about privacy, and the reality that not everyone out there will respect mine.

However, this doesn’t change the fact that it’s important to teach kids not to lie. To begin with, when kids first begin to lie, they aren’t neurologically ready to understand the nuances above. Life usually does a good enough job of teaching them that as time goes on. They’re mostly lying for the same reason Jr. did; to get out of trouble. Furthermore, they’re usually doing it with ignorance of the larger consequences, just as Jr. ignored the fact that his lie would get Laura in trouble.

All these stories about lie monsters crushing the liar’s houses are hamfisted metaphors, but they are an attempt to get at a deeper truth; lies, even ones designed to protect us, also hurt us.

They hurt us by separating us from other people. When I don’t share my trans identity with someone, I’m establishing that person as someone I don’t feel comfortable being myself with, because part of who I am is transgender. I can take down that barrier eventually, especially if my lies have mostly been lies of omission, but if I’ve told a lot of active lies about things I did as a totally-not-female-assigned kid and the real reason I had to leave my family a few years ago, that barrier becomes very hard to take down without making the other person feel uncomfortable and betrayed. Every other lie I have ever told has in some way constructed a barrier between me and someone else.

They also hurt us by separating us from reality, which, as a philosophical skeptic, I am very much against. By telling a lie, I force myself to act as though reality is different from what it is. That is not comfortable, which leads to the third type of harm lies do; they have the potential to separate us from ourselves. Because of cognitive dissonance, we dislike having our thoughts, actions and words misalign. If we cannot return to the truth, often we let our lies take over, and come to believe the lies we told.

Did seeing my favorite character almost get eaten by a big purple monster help me come to that realization? I’m not sure. I’m not sure “scared straight” ever leads to real understanding and character growth, but on the other hand, I’m not sure it doesn’t. It’s one of those “more study required” things for me.

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Reviewing Veggie Tales as an Atheist; Dave and The Giant Pickle

I’m skipping ahead a couple episodes. I will go back and review the ones I missed, but for reasons of a complicated nature I had several Veggie Tales reviews pre-written just in case I needed a pre-written blog post sometime in the future. It’s been kind of a crazy month, yet I am bound and determined to not be one of those bloggers who says, “it’s been kind of a crazy month” and then you don’t hear from them for a year.

This episode marks the first appearance of Larry-Boy, an alter ego of Larry’s, who would go on to star in two other episodes, which scared the crap out of child me. Seriously, I once had a full-on meltdown over the fact that everybody but me wanted to watch Larry-Boy and the Fib From Outer Space, which basically meant I could either join them and feel like I was being slowly melted into the floor while somebody poked me with needles all over, or I could skip the evening’s movie. From a kid’s perspective, the two were pretty much equally bad.

In the opening, Larry is dressed up in yellow and purple spandex, with suction cup ears. That’s Larry-Boy’s superpower, by the way. While all the other veggies have to cope with their armlessness by magically making things float in front of them, he has suction cups, so he can awkwardly contort himself into sort of haplessly holding onto them-ish. Truly, a fearsome nemesis for evil-doers everywhere. Anyway, Larry dramatically narrates himself into getting stuck to a wall, when Bob comes in to ask him what he’s doing. Larry explains that he wanted to pretend to be a superhero because he feels like his ordinary self isn’t cool enough. Bob doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with Larry playing pretend, but he’s worried about underlying self-esteem issues. Coincidentally, their letter of the week is also from someone who has a lot of self-esteem issues. Bob decides to remedy both with the uplifting tale of David and Goliath Dave and The Giant Pickle.

The plot is a very direct interpretation of the Biblical story; the biggest change is the running gag of David’s sheep falling over. This is one of those stories that you are probably at least a little familiar with, even if you weren’t raised as a hardcore Christian. The Israelites are at war with the Philistines, and they agree to settle the whole thing with a duel between their champion. The Philistines’ champion turns out to be a giant named Goliath, and none of the Israelites are willing to fight him until a young shepherd boy named David volunteers and promptly defeats him with a slingshot. Most people also probably know that David grows up to be the second and most famous king of Israel, and also an ancestor of Jesus. Or maybe you didn’t know that last part. I dunno, I lose track of what normal people do and don’t know about Scripture.

Anyway, this story is popular outside of religious circles, because everybody loves a good underdog story, and because you can play the moral of this one in a lot of directions. “Don’t let fear of a large obstacle terrorize you into doing nothing.” “Don’t judge people by their appearances.” “While sheer might is impressive, if it is not accompanied by speed and agility you might find yourself defeated by a small, fragile foe  armed with projectile weapons.” “God can use little people to do big things.”

Unsurprisingly, the narration and framing devices lean this version heavily on the latter, meaning it falls into the crack of themes that I can neither agree with nor pick a bone with. I don’t think God exists, so clearly I don’t think he’s using little people to do big things, but I’m also all for boosting the self-esteem of young people and I’m not going to rag on them merely for boosting their self-esteem on a Christian pretense. The message simply bears no meaning for me anymore.

I did get another thought while I watched it; one completely unintended by the writers. There’s a moment when Dave starts singing his theme song, King Saul (Archibald Asparagus) says “Couldn’t you just play your harp and I’ll throw things at you?” I laughed, because I got the joke. See, in the Bible, David becomes King Saul’s personal harpist. As Saul learns about David’s popularity with the people and the prophecies that he will be the next king, the relationship sours even though David insists he is loyal to Saul. Eventually Saul just starts having random fits of temper where he throws things at David. You know, to let off steam over the whole “you’re going to get my job one day” thing. As I made the connection and laughed, I suddenly remembered that as a little six year old, I still got the joke. But here’s the weird thing; I got the joke as a little kid, too. Every morning, my Mom read Bible stories to me, and the Bible stories that some people have never heard of are as engrained in my mind as Pat-a-Cake.

This is one of the strange things about being me; not that I was once radically Christian, but that I went from being a true believer on one end of the spectrum to far, far on the other. Most people are raised in one environment, and stay more or less within that environment for their whole life. Of those I know who have gone from one extreme to the other, mostly they never felt at home in one. My boyfriend is agnostic and was raised Catholic, but he always had uncomfortable questions in Sunday school. Everybody evolves as they grow, but most people don’t go through a radical shift in their whole cultural identity.

As a result, many people underestimate the difficulty of making that kind of shift. They speak with casual scorn of things other people do, as if they could just wake up one morning and realize they should have done things your way all along. The thing about not going through that kind of shift is that things you’ve done since you were a child seem so right, any other way of doing them almost feels fictional. You might know, intellectually, that it’s completely arbitrary that these clothes and these foods and these stories are natural to you, but in an experiential sense, those can’t help but feel more right than anything that is different from them.

To me, everything feels a little alien. Things from my present feel new and unfamiliar. Things from my past feel comfortable, but wrong, like T-shirts you are too big to wear anymore. It’s not entirely bad, but often it is difficult, often lonely, and the journey was hard. When I hear  people criticize immigrants for not adapting quickly enough,  or Christians say that if someone goes to hell for not believing in God that’s their fault because they chose to not radically change their belief system, or people from groups I belong to now deride those who aren’t progressive enough in one way or another, I want to smack them all. Whether I think any of those people would be better off changing their way of life in the long run is one thing, but I hate it when people trivialize the experience of drastically changing your life.

Coming up soon; the Veggie Tale that scared the pants off of tiny little me.

Beauty and the Beast and Stockholm Syndrome Part 2

Trigger warning; discussion of abuse

Part One can be found here.

The wonderful thing about fairy tales is how adaptable they are. They are light sketches of events that are evocative, yet minimalist, so they can be retold by writer after writer and always remain fresh. I wrote yesterday about what Stockholm Syndrome really is, and promised to use this one to answer the question of whether or not Beauty and the Beast is really an example of it. The truth is, that’s not a question I can fully answer. There are many versions of the story out there, and just as you can tell the Wizard of Oz so the Wicked Witch is a hero or a villain, you can tell this fairy tale as an abuse story, or a redemption story.

Every fairy tale has a set of elements that must be kept for the story to be recognized. Cinderella needs a shoe, a ball and a wicked stepmother. Sleeping Beauty needs a spindle, a cursed sleep and a kiss to wake her. In Beauty and the Beast, the heroine must agree to live with a monster to save her family, come to love him, and with her confession of love turn him from a beast into a man. Usually there is also a point where Beauty leaves the Beast temporarily, returns to find him dying and only then confesses her love. That all does sound suspicious, but the details of their characterization, of why Beauty loves the Beast despite his earlier threat to her family, of how he treats her and whether either character changes over the course of the story, all of these are up to the individual who tells the story. You can’t conclusively answer the question of whether this is a story about an abusive dynamic or not without knowing them.

I’ll stop being disingenuous now; the version we are all interested in is this one.

Beauty and the Beast

And to be honest, no, I don’t think it portrays Stockholm Syndrome at all.  First, recall that I said in the last piece that the first element of Stockholm Syndrome is that the victim feels trapped in their situation. The actual means used to entrap a victim are less important to the presence of Stockholm Syndrome than the sincerity of the victim’s belief that they are trapped. There is a scene early on in the film where the Beast loses his temper at Belle, and she runs out of the castle saying “promise or no promise, I can’t stay here.” Belle has agreed to stay with him, but she does not feel trapped by that promise. If she did, she would not have run away.

When Belle returns, it is not because she feels afraid of anything the Beast will do to her if she runs. While she is leaving, wolves attack, and the Beast is wounded protecting her. She returns because she can’t abandon him under those circumstances. Now, the fact that he saved her does not in and of itself prevent this from being a story about abuse. This could actually turn into an unhealthy dynamic, if the Beast guilt trips her into continuing to stay, and uses the danger of the wolves as an indirect threat, but neither of those things happen. Instead they argue, and Belle holds the Beast accountable for his actions, and she doesn’t suffer any consequences for insisting that he needs to learn to control his temper. That is not typical of an abusive relationship. Nobody likes being told they are in the wrong, and the Beast doesn’t like it in this scene either, but while an abuser would find a way to shift the blame onto Belle, or punish her for standing up for herself, the Beast actually seems to take the experience as a lesson.

This brings me to the second point. In Stockholm Syndrome, victims learn to cooperate with their captors in order to protect themselves. When the Beast seemed to be a threat to Belle, she stood up to him and won. For the rest of the movie, Belle will never need to protect herself again. The Beast treats her kindly and respectfully, and she responds in kind, which makes him continue to treat her well and grow into a very gentle, thoughtful person. That is the opposite of an abusive dynamic; that is one person genuinely having a good influence on another.

The third point I made about Stockholm Syndrome is that the victims do see their abusers being nice sometimes. Most humans aren’t rotten twenty-four seven. Abusers will have their moments when they are fun, or when their victims are cooperating and they reward that by not being completely terrible, or when they say “I’m sorry” in between bouts of violence. So how do we tell whether the Beast has really grown and is sorry for what he’s done, or whether he’s just playing nice for the time being? In the real world, how do we know the difference between a changed person and an abuser who happens to be in a good mood these days?

I don’t have a comprehensive answer for the real world, but in the case of this story I think the way you know the Beast has changed is this; he lets Belle go. He tells her to go help her father, and that she does not have to ever return. He specifically says she is no longer his prisoner. This comes at personal cost to the Beast. In addition to the ordinary pain of losing someone he loves, he is also sacrificing his only chance of ever returning to human form, because Belle’s happiness is more important to him.

One thing I love about this movie is that Belle does not fall in love with someone who is threatening and harming her; instead, we see the Beast actively, measurably changing his behavior, and Belle developing feelings for the person he becomes once he ceases to be a threat. The refrain of the song where much of this growth happens is “there may be something there that wasn’t there before.” This story is not trying to portray the Beast’s former actions as excusable, but as something bad that had to go away before Belle and the Beast could have a relationship.

I love genuine redemption stories because I do believe that most people can change, and I love it when that happens. Unfortunately, there is a difference between “can” and “will.” There are stories out there, passed off as romance, where the heroine (and its usually a heroine, even though men can be victims) sees some minor gesture of kindness in the actions of a tortured man (vice versa) and learns that, by going along with everything he says and being a perfect person she can make him a decent person nearly all the time. Those are the stories we should be calling out for portraying Stockholm Syndrome. I recently saw a trailer for a French version of Beauty and the Beast that seemed to be taking this approach. I’m not going to state that it is, because I’ve had a hell of a time finding a version with subtitles so I haven’t actually seen it, but there are some things in the trailer that make it seem like the Beast’s hold over Belle is far more coercive. For example, this story seems to be keeping the part of the original fairy tale where, instead of setting Belle free, the Beast lets her leave temporarily, and also tells her “If you do not come back, I will die.” In context there might be a legitimate reason for him saying that, but it could also be his way of making her feel like trying to leave a dangerous situation is her abusing him; a common abusive tactic in real life. He also tells her, in an earlier scene, that she cannot escape because the forest itself will close in on her.

I think that fiction offers us an opportunity to think about real world issues, without forcing us to live through the trauma of actually experiencing them. Dealing with and recognizing abuse is a big issue. Recognizing how to help people who are hurting and lashing out badly, and help them without martyring ourselves in the process, is also a big issue. Analyzing stories that touch on those issues is great, but when our analysis is sloppy, when we gloss over the issues and make jokes of them, we don’t do ourselves any favors.

Beauty and the Beast and Stockholm Syndrome Part 1

Trigger warning; discussion of abuse

Part Two can be found here.

One of the great internet overthinker pastimes is analyzing favorite childhood stories for hidden meanings and implications. What would have happened to the Forest Moon of Endor after the destruction of the second Death Star? Wasn’t Mufasa actually oppressing hyenas? What will happen when Ariel find out she lives with people who treat her former friends as a dietary staple?  Isn’t Beauty and the Beast basically about Stockholm Syndrome?

That last one has bothered me for a while. Most of the others don’t really interfere with my enjoyment. Either I can laugh it off as a “writers can’t think of everything” problem, or think up an alternate explanation. But with Beauty and the Beast, the issue cuts right to the heart of what I like about the story. It takes a beautiful love story that is also one of the most touching redemption stories in the world, and turns it into a story about abuse. Abuse and toxic relationships in general are a little too close home for me. I think it’s important, even critical, for people to know how to recognize and avoid it. I don’t think young children should be shown love stories that will teach them to convince unhealthy drama with excitement and abuse with love. If Beauty and the Beast is really about Stockholm Syndrome, I can’t like the story anymore.

But is it really? In contrast to other cases where I’ve been told to check out this creepy implication of a children’s story, I’ve never seen an analysis of the Beauty and the Beast/Stockholm Syndrome connection. The point is never much deeper than “she gets kidnapped and then falls in love with her kidnapper and that’s basically Stockholm Syndrome, right?” It also often comes with a very demeaning attitude towards Stockholm Syndrome victims; what an idiot to fall in love with someone who kidnapped you, amirite? The Stockholm-y aspects of Beauty and the Beast isn’t actually seen as a big deal, because Stockholm Syndrome is seen as kind of a joke diagnosis, which bothers me. I don’t like seeing abuse victims dismissed like that.

I decided to do some research myself, to fill in that gap in the overthinker’s market. I’ve already researched abusive and toxic dynamics extensively, for personal reasons, so I started by reading up on Stockholm Syndrome and seeing where that fit into the picture. Most of what I say below comes from this resource; I found others, but this one was the most clear and comprehensive. I’m going to use this part to explain more about what Stockholm Syndrome is and what causes it; my next installment will get into how this applies to Beauty and the Beast.

First, Stockholm Syndrome can exist any time you have an abuser and a victim who feels they cannot escape. This person could be someone who was kidnapped, but the dynamic can also exist between parents and children, students and teachers, employees and employers, and in romantic relationships. It is the victim’s belief that they cannot escape that makes them vulnerable to attaching to their abuser, not the physical obstacles to their escape. A woman may be able to physically walk out the door on her abusive husband, but if she thinks she can’t make enough money to survive on her own, and that all her Catholic friends will abandon her if she becomes a divorcee, and also that she’s not attractive enough to find a better man, she’s effectively his captive, even if none of those things are true.

Second, Stockholm Syndrome is actually something of an adaptive survival technique. If you cannot leave, or feel you can’t, the next best thing you can do is try to live with your captor as best you can. This is where things get really disturbing. A common belief among abuse victims is that they did something to deserve their abuse, that if they had only been more polite, more accommodating, more alert, they would not have been hurt. From the outside, it is obvious to see that this is wrong, that even if they had made a legitimate mistake, the other person’s actions were in no way justified. From the inside, though, if you can’t leave, the only thing you can do to protect yourself is try to act in a way that minimizes your abuse. Most people, no matter how awful, are more likely to mistreat someone they see as hostile and uncooperative, and more likely to treat someone well if they shows love and compliance. Looking at the situation that way, it’s easy to see why someone would cooperate with an abuser to spare themselves some pain.

Unfortunately, a psychological quirk called cognitive dissonance enters the picture here. When our thoughts and actions clash, we tend to feel uncomfortable. We tend to adjust either what we think or what we do to feel better about ourselves. So, what starts out as cooperating to save your own skin turns into wondering if that other person was really so bad, if maybe you’re going along with them because you do like them. You can start thinking that, after all, if there are things you can do to keep from pissing them off, maybe they aren’t so bad. Maybe they’re just misunderstood, and you’re the person who knows how to do things right to bring out the good person inside.

Third, the thing about abusers is that they are human beings, and human beings are very bad at fitting into tidy good guy/bad guy boxes. Just as an ordinarily nice person might have an awful day and a stress headache and end up losing their temper at their friends for no good reason, an ordinarily mean person could still be very pleasant to be around when they are calm and happy. They might remember your favorite flowers and bring you a bouquet. They might be good at making you laugh. They might have quiet, introspective conversations where they seem to really open up about how their parents beat them and it kind of messed them up psychologically and they really wish they were a better person… and that might not even be a manipulation tactic. It might be the honest truth. Again, from the outside, its easy to see that there’s a line, that keeping somebody captive and mistreating them isn’t made all better by flowers and a sad childhood, but when you combine that with feeling trapped and the powers of cognitive dissonance, the results can be terrifying. It can twist abuse victims around so they become wrapped up in their own abuse. It can make them lie to cops to keep their beloved spouse from being taken to prison for beating them up. This is real world Stockholm Syndrome

The worst part is that none of these things that lead to Stockholm Syndrome are actually bad in and of themselves. It’s good to be able to look at a hopeless situation and figure out how to make it better. It’s good to be able to forgive and empathize with people who aren’t perfect. It’s good that we have cognitive dissonance stopping us from being flippant hypocrites and liars (or at least making it more difficult to do so). Stockholm Syndrome is horrifying because it takes some of the best human traits and twists them into a knife that the victim falls upon.

You can see why, if Beauty and the Beast is about Stockholm Syndrome, I can’t keep liking it. Coming up soon; I answer the question of whether or not I can.

Meaning, Inspiration and Theme

As longtime readers of the blog know, I’m fascinated by the question of how theme actually works. Theme is often cited as one of the four essential elements in a good story, the other three being character, plot and setting. Those last three are easy to talk about. Most people agree on the basic principles of how you make ones that are good or bad. When it comes to theme, though, nobody really agrees, and many people say there is no good way to create a theme. Many say that artists have their own ideas about what their works mean, and audience members each have their own interpretations, and all of that is as it should be.

I recently had a breakthrough when I was reading this statement by Kina Grannis, one of my favorite independent musicians, “Of course, every song begins with some original meaning for the songwriter–that first idea that sparked it into existence and allowed it to be a cohesive thought to explore and write about. However, in my opinion, that original intent of the song, while certainly important, is not necessarily the point. For me, the point lies in whatever that song could potentially mean to anyone, anywhere, at any given time. Music is so adaptable, and that’s part of what makes it so powerful. If the song was written with love and sincerity and real feeling, those things–those genuine emotions in the song–are what people connect to.” It comes from her commentary on the song “Oh Father.” You can read the whole thing and watch the video here.

My breakthrough was the realization that when we talk about theme, we often conflate three distinct things; inspiration, meaning, and the themes embedded in the work itself.

Inspiration is whatever caused the writer to think of the ideas that made them write their story (or song) the way they did. Mary Shelley was inspired by, among other things, the eerie weather of 1816, the emergence of biology and scientific experimentation as a serious discipline, and her miscarried child. C. S. Lewis was inspired by Christian theology. Much of my writing is my experience growing up homeschooled and the resulting feelings of isolation. However, you shouldn’t have to know any of this kind of background to get something out of a work of art. It can be interesting, but the work should be able to stand on its own, apart from whatever inspired it.

While inspiration is that initial input, meaning is the final output. Just as events in the writer’s life informed what they put in, the life of the audience will influence what they took out. Suppose a writer, deeply interested in power dynamics and economics, wants to write about a woman struggling to move up the ranks in a big corporation. As they write, they realize their character needs a person outside of the job to support her, to give her someone to vent to and to generally act as a foil to the corporate environment. They create a younger brother who lives with his sister and works as a struggling hippie artist. Despite their personal differences they are quite close and talk frequently. I read this book, and while I am not particularly interested in the world of business, I am fascinated by families. I am extremely close to my big sister, so stories with prominent sibling dynamics tend to hit me hard. As I read, I notice that the protagonist has a male and female boss (originally put in because the author wanted to portray both powerful men and powerful women), and I see parallels between their relationships with the protagonist and parent-child dynamics. To me, the whole story becomes a metaphor for family, even though the author could have cared less about family and was inspired by business. What the audience takes away from the story might be very different from what got the writer to create the story in the first place, that doesn’t make these meanings wrong. Stories are not a “guess what I’m thinking” game played by authors, contrary to what many English teachers seem to think.

However, writers do have a role to play in creating these meanings in the minds of their readers. It isn’t their sole responsibility. The readers will contribute, using their own ideas and experiences, and they might even disagree with the author. The writer’s responsibility is to provide seeds for these meanings. It’s those seeds that are the actual themes. They take the form of recurring motifs, causes and effects, paradoxes, dialog between the characters, and so on.

In the song “Oh Father,” Kina Grannis describes perilous situations, juxtaposed with the refrain, “oh father.” The tone of the song is not exactly sad, not exactly happy, but beautifully wistful in a calm sort of way. You could put that together and conclude that the song is about letting go of the support your parents have given you, and striking out on your own, in which case your meaning and Kina’s inspiration would happen to coincide. On the other hand, maybe you had a dysfunctional relationship with your father, so perhaps its about accepting both the pain you were put through and the love you feel for him nonetheless. Or perhaps the person in a predicament is the father, instead of the singer. Perhaps the father is struggling with situations beyond what he can deal with, and the singer is offering sympathy and comfort to him. Maybe the father isn’t a literal father, but God, or a mentor, and so on.

All these interpretations are very different, but they are all connected. They are all tied to things that are really said in the song. The themes are bridges that connect the author’s inspiration to the reader’s meaning. In a sense they are subjective, but in another they aren’t. I can’t imagine taking a meaning away from “Oh Father” that doesn’t in some involve a father, or father figure. Father is right there in the title, after all, so clearly it is important.

Themes do not argue as straightforwardly as a treatise. They do not set out with a clear meaning that they must convince you of. When an author is clearly trying to do that, their story is generally mocked and discarded as heavy-handed and pretentious. Themes don’t preach ideas, lay out logical syllogisms, or tell you that you are right or wrong. They slip into you, with intermingled thoughts and emotions, carrying a message meant just for you.