Subtext

by Toni McGee Causey

 

Sometimes, it’s what you don’t say that counts the most.

That holds true in fiction, as well.

When we’re creating characters and trying to bring them to life on the page, we’re generally focused on things like character voice, motive, need, background, goals, conflict. We express those through language and syntax and action and choice. We may use descriptions and metaphors and similes and dialog to portray all of those choices.

But a lot of times, writers tend to forget to pay attention to subtext — which is “an underlying and distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation.” 

In other words, whether you like it or not, your choices for your novel are going to communicate a meta message about how you see the world, or how you think your characters see the world. It’s not terribly complicated. For example, if every single female character in a book has to be rescued at some point or other, and no female ever comes up with a single usable good idea, then the writer’s meta message is that females are inferior. The writer may love women, may worship them, may do a fine joy in real life treating them as equals, so it’s isn’t necessarily always the case that they secretly dislike women or think they’re inferior, but one has to wonder. If every single male in a book is a loathsome cheating lowlife bastard who deserves his balls to be shot off and all men should just stand over in the corner and look pretty… well, it doesn’t exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out that message, now, does it.

Those examples, however, are fairly obvious, and most people manage to avoid them. It’s the subtler ones that will destroy a book quickly–when the particular attitude of one character over an issue is prevalent in every character, or every character of a specific gender or race… that it destroys the individuality of the character and the world of the book. Because not every character should think the same, hold the same values. And I don’t just mean the obvious, the villain and the hero. (Actually, it’s pretty interesting when the villain and the hero have the same values, but just see a different approach to obtaining a goal.) The world is full of people who, in spite of the globalization of culture, in spite of the homogenization of attitudes, still have their own individual quirks and likes and dislikes, and real character springs from that.

Subtext, gone awry, can destroy the writer’s intention.

I’m going to use commercials for examples, because they’re quick, easy, and I can post the YouTube versions here.

Now here’s a fun ad by the Dodge people which accomplished their intended subtext… they wanted to accomplish an ad with very dry humor, and portray the new Dodge Charger as the fun, sexy sports car that was also powerful and affordable. This ad worked:

 

The subtext is, “We’re not only cool under pressure, we have a dry sense of humor, and we’re fun. When everyone else is freaking out, wasting their time, we’re going to be having the time of our lives. Drive this car and be cool with us.”

Not a bad message. Hell, it made me want to go look at the car. And even though it was addressed mostly to guys, it didn’t exclude women. That’s smart marketing.

So then, thinking they were on a roll, the Dodge people came up with this ad for the Superbowl, which failed pretty miserably. (While there are some pockets on the internet which ranked this ad favorably, I saw many many forums and national columnists poke fun, and the sneer on Twitter was practically universal.)

 

What they were going for was some sort of male creed, that because the male critter was willing to suffer through such torture, and do it with patience and without upsetting the female critter, the male damned well deserved something cool to drive. 

The subtext, however, shot that all to pieces, and what they accomplished, instead, was to assert that their customer was the kind of guy who whined about small inconveniences, had no guts, no backbone, no charisma, no testosterone and no real life, and that the woman in his life was a bitch and owned him, lock, stock and racing stripes. But hey, he could buy a car. That he was unlikely to buy that car was also evident.

They made the potential customer see themselves as downtrodden wusses. Not exactly a clever move, there, because your goal as an ad person is to project something that your customer will identify with as what they want to be, and looky here, this product will give you that (or the illusion of you being like that). 

Additionally, they alienated a huge market for their cars: women. I know lots of women who love sports cars. This ad did not make them want to buy it. For a company in the throes of a bailout, that’s really not a clever approach to increasing market share.

Dodge wasn’t the only company crashing and burning during the Super Bowl… I saw a lot of complaints over the Bud Light ads, particularly this one:

 

The end slogan is, “It’s the sure sign of good times,” and I guess we’re supposed to assume that because the husband (boyfriend? brother?) managed to filch a few Bud Lights, good times were had. That’s the text of the message, but the subtext is, “Men are inappropriate jerks who wouldn’t know a book if it bit them, and only idiots drink our beer. Plus, sexy smart women think they’re lame and stupid, and barely tolerate them.”

It’s not like drinking the beer made the guy sexier to any of the women there. He certainly didn’t impress them any. He didn’t surprise us at all by actually knowing something about the book. (That would have been a very nice surprise… a book club where the husband is about to take off for a ball game, hears the discussion, grabs the beer from the fridge, crashes the discussion and actually not only knows something about the book, but is intelligent and makes the party fun.)

Now here’s a commercial that addresses subtext head on and, in my opinion, succeeds. Not only do I remember the commercial, but I really want to go pick up some of that Old Spice just to see… ya know?

And this one… cracks me up:

 

I’m sure there’s something negative about a woman prone to violence, (and most people just said, ‘ya think?’)… but I love the subtext that she’s not going to be a victim, she’s not going to be subtle. The “Oh, shit,” expression when she realizes what she’s done makes her human and flawed and funny and I appreciated the repair shop’s attitude. (I also liked the small detail of the actor who arrives in the car just really seeming to be a sleazy two-timer–it subtly reinforces her assertions.)

So, when you’re thinking of creating your characters, think about the long term affects of the subtext. Look for patterns of repetition which could reinforce a negative stereotype you hadn’t meant to portray, or an attitude that is counter-intuitive to what you’d hoped to have the reader feel in that moment. Subtext / meta messages register, and as you can see in these 30 second videos, they register fast.

As an aside, I wanted to announce that this is the last week to sign up for Margie Lawson’s phenomenal class called EMPOWERING CHARACTERS’ EMOTIONS. Class runs from March 1st through March 31st. The class is an online class that works via a yahoogroup loop… and it’s designed for anyone, any genre, published or unpublished, because you work at your own pace and are challenged at your own level. (Trust me–Margie is beyond awesome. Her classes are routinely packed which means terrific conversation between attendees.)

This class is sponsored by PASIC, a Published Author Special Interest Chapter, but you *do not* have to be a member to attend. The sign up information is here and the deadline is February 27th. (I am the moderator.)

But for today, how about naming a TV show, commercial or movie where the subtext destroyed the intent? Or made you not enjoy the premise of the show? (For example, I know some people who just cannot get past the era of MAD MEN and the misogynistic / racist vibe.)

All commenters (save my fellow ‘Rati), will be eligible either for Margie’s class above OR a $30 gift certificate to MYSTERY LOVERS BOOKSTORE (which ships for FREE, any book you want, they can get). For international entrants, an Amazon gift card can be substituted. Contest open through Friday, midnight, CST. 

23 thoughts on “Subtext

  1. JD Rhoades

    I saw that second Dodge ad during the Super Bowl and went, "oh, shit, they are gonna get RAKED OVER THE COALS for that one." That’s not the worst one, though…the worst one was the Bridgestone Tires ad, where some evil looking group stops a car at a roadblock and call out to the driver ‘Your Bridgestone Tires or your life!" There’s a brief pause and then this hot looking woman gets kicked out of the passenger seat onto the road. The exasperated baddie calls out to the retreating vehicle, "not your WIFE, your LIFE!"

    Bridgestone: you’d rather leave your wife to be raped and murdered than lose these tires. WTF?

    Reply
  2. Paula R.

    Hey Toni, I saw most of these commercials. I didn’t like the Budlight one at all. And the Old Spice one was pretty funny. My initial reaction to it was not a good one because I watched it from a Black person’s perspective versus a female perspective. I felt like it put the black male down in that it showed him trying to be more than he was, not only in speech but also in dress and actions. However, after seeing it a couple of times, I see what you mean. The subtext is big. When dealing with people, I tend to look more at what they are not saying, depending on the situation of course.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

    Reply
  3. Fran

    A commercial that totally didn’t work for me was the Prius one where the landscape and sky and everything were people. They alll looked like prisoners, trapped in some sort of Dantean hell and it creeped the snot out of me. I’m not entirely sure the Prius wants a holier-than-though, run over the innocents, ignore everybody else and damn them all to an arcane hell sort of vibe, but they certainly got that, in my opinion.

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  4. alli

    Toni, I love the idea you had for the Budlight with the hubby sitting down with the ladies and contributing in an intelligent and witty way about the book (while drinking beer) – maybe you’ve found yourself a new job! (but don’t stop writing novels!).

    Air New Zealand did a mighty fine job this year of offending women and young men (gay and straight) And they managed to offend on many levels (some via subtext, some not so subtle). Their marketing campaign went viral but not in a good way. I’m still trying to work out how Cougars sell seats on Air New Zealand. Here’s the link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ot791ITQYbc

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  5. Naomi Johnson

    The auto bodyshop commercial doesn’t do it for me, any more than that song Carrie Underwood shrills about destroying her boyfriend’s ride did it for me. The subtext for me is that women are too immature to handle their emotions in a non-violent way yet are too weak, physically and emotionally, for face-to-face confrontations.

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  6. Tom

    Excellent topic, Toni. We’ve been saying here at home, watching the Olympics, that some advertisers haven’t bought themselves what they expect.

    This reaches back quite some time, but I have to say ‘Moonlighting,’ the Glenn Gordon Caron TV series, just annoyed the hell out of me with intention subverted by subtext.

    We were supposed to admire Maddy and David, to enjoy the crackling dialog and sexual tensions, but I never believed the protagonists were anything but self-absorbed, unreliable and untrustworthy.

    Why should we care about them? Were they more admirable for being toxic waste wrapped in Armani? The second-banana characters, used for contrast, were mocked as losers for their efforts to be decent humans.

    Of course, earnestness and honesty became quite passe in those years, so maybe the writers were victims of the times.

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  7. toni mcgee causey

    Karen, thank you!

    Dusty, wow, I did not see that one. Holy cripes, that was a stupid commercial. It really makes you wonder what on earth they were thinking.

    Paula, I hadn’t thought of it like that… I see your point, though. I think what kept me from seeing it like that is that he was being touted as being the kind of guy any woman would desire–wealthy, smart, funny. That he happened to be black and was the guy desired felt like a good break away from the stereotype. (I could be wrong, but that was my first impression.)

    You know, this goes back to the conversation we all had a while back for Stephen’s column, when we were talking about whether someone could adequately write a person of a different ethnic background without inadvertently doing something that would be insulting. I love conversations like this–helps me learn!

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  8. toni mcgee causey

    Fran, that’s it! Every time I saw that commercial, I knew I was supposed to be entertained and impressed with how they made it, but it always left me feeing vaguely uncomfortable and disconnected from their product. Which, honestly, I hadn’t realized was the Prius, and I’ve seen that commercial quite a few times. I’d say that if I’d seen it that many times and can’t remember what they’re selling, then they’ve failed.

    Alli…OMG. That was one of the worst commercials I have ever seen. Seriously, that’s gotta win an award for most insulting. Geez.

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  9. toni mcgee causey

    J.T…. thanks! Well, I never think I actually know anything worth teaching. I kinda flub my way through here and hope some of it makes sense.

    Naomi — that’s a really good point. (See, I knew posting at 3 in the morning meant I was missing something there.) Still… I can forgive that one because it cracks me up. But I am kinda wicked that way.

    Reply
  10. Louise Ure

    After thirty years in advertising, you’d think I would have a better understanding of this, but during the Superbowl, all I could think was, "I know I’m not the target audience, but there’s a whole lot of men=stupid/insenitive/immature and women = frivolous/just a body messaging going on here."

    Reply
  11. toni mcgee causey

    Tom, that’s so true about that show. It was funny, but at the same time, its message was that superficial and shallow and callous were the goals of the cool kids, and anything remotely dorky was just fodder for humiliation. I had forgotten that – good point.

    God, Cornelia, what a funny, brilliant way to put it! You’re so right.

    Louise, too true. After the whole thing was over, I had to wonder if there had been some sort of theme announced to advertisers, because it was so prevalent across all of the products. It was as if the ads were all written by people who assumed that women would (a) never see the ads and (b) weren’t fans of football, so wouldn’t care or understand. Plus… most of the ads belittled the male demo they were going after. I just can’t wrap my mind around the logic of being condescending to the very group you hope to sell your product to.

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  12. kit

    Toni —
    I went to college in the late 70’s with a major in communications…in one of the classes we had, I remember a program we veiwed called "sexism in advertising"

    Advertisers were selling one thing, but the subliminal message coming through kept most of the ads from being as effective as they might have otherwise been. I did a search to see if I could come across any of the images that were used and I found this instead.
    http://images.google.com/images?um=1&hl=en&tbs=isch%3A1&sa=3&q=sexism+in+advertising&btnG=Search+images

    some of these I have definitely missed, however, when it somes to subtext….these are fairly blatent, take your pick……

    Reply
  13. Paula R.

    Hey Toni, I think you perception of the commercial is exactly what the advertisers were going for…wealthy, smart, funny…pretty much anything you want in a man, but the "ordinary" woman, who doesn’t live in that circle, can attain that by getting a man who uses the Old Spice bodywash.

    I love conversations like these too because as a new writer, I struggle with whether or not my characters and their circumstances are authentic enough for me to sell them, even though I haven’t lived through some of the experiences I put them through.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

    Reply
  14. Jake Nantz

    I love the comedy and the sweet side of the movie WALL-E, but I HATED the subtext in it. You know, the one that says we’re all fat, lazy, unproductive bastards who are just going to completely destroy the planet, then eventually become so stupid and reliant on technology that we think pizza grows (whole, and maybe even cooked) from a plant. I really hate being preached to by elitists who seem to think they always know what’s best, and that the rest of us, the unwashed, ignorant masses, should just put all of our trust in them because they know what’s best…the irony of which is that’s exactly how the people in WALL-E are portrayed as having gotten into the mess in the first place, by putting all of their trust in the guys who set the giant ship up.

    Sorry, rant over….

    Reply
  15. toni mcgee causey

    kit. that last one? OHMYGOD, that was hysterically perfect.

    Jake–I had the same thought! Message movies really irk me for that reason, particularly when they portray the masses as too simple-minded to understand anything beyond ‘Just shut up and let us handle it.’

    And Dusty… good freaking grief. What on earth were they thinking? Definitely will make me buy something else, next time I buy tires.

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  16. Marcia Carter

    Toni, I can’t help but think of what set off my most recent tirade. Spam emails for ways to earn money online. I keep getting this one where the guy touts himself as a philanthropist that is GIVING AWAY his money making secrets because he’s making too much money and then only asks for shipping handling which, BIG SURPRISE, is all they ask you to pay. It’s usually an exorbitant sum that if you had to begin with, you wouldn’t be looking for a way to make money! It never fails to make me want to scream at the idiot, "Do I have STUPID tattooed across my forehead?!" I am not sure, but I think they are almost as annoying as the morons trying to sell me penile enhancements when my email addresses contain either mom or lady in the handle. Way to use screening robo mailers moron! I think these epic examples of marketing stupidity exceed anything in tv land!

    Reply
  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Brilliant post, and those ads were terrific. We just don’t get them like that in the UK – very po-faced.

    I always loved the vid clips on YouTube of the Trunk Monkey ads:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8avOiTUcD4Y

    But I wonder, since that poor woman was attacked by her friend’s chimpanzee and horribly disfigured, if they aren’t now a bit too close to the bone.

    No idea what the subtext is, though. But it is 2am here, and I’ve only just finished work for the day and my brain is leaking out of my ears …;-]

    Reply

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