Analysis

Five Stories That Undermine Their Own Message

Christopher from District 9.

Why does the only alien with screen time wear human clothes?

Beyond dramatic climaxes and character arcs, many stories have a message to deliver. This message might be a statement on human nature, a cautionary tale about environmental damage, a call for social justice, or anything else you can imagine. Sometimes a message isn’t even intentional, but it shines through nonetheless.

Ideally, a story should be focused around its message. After all, it’s usually the message that gives a story longevity. But this isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes a story will actively sabotage its own message. This is rarely on purpose, but it happens anyway. Details of character and plot contradict what the story is trying to say, and the audience’s experience suffers.

1. Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman with her shield on her back, and her arms out.

Wonder Woman is a good film, certainly the best film DC has produced in years, but its message is confused. Ostensibly, this is a film about defeating war. Sometimes war is manifested by Ares, the literal God of War, and sometimes it’s represented by humanity’s innately destructive tendencies.

With that message in mind, it makes sense that the film is set in World War One. That conflict is almost completely devoid of a moral justification to modern Americans.* Setting the film in World War Two wouldn’t have worked. In that conflict, the problem was Nazis, not war. But the Great War is perfect, because it was mostly waged due to a complicated web of treaties and one nationalist shooting an archduke.

Unfortunately, the film flounders in actually portraying the war as morally ambiguous. Wonder Woman spends most of the film in the company of the Allies, who are set up as the good guys. We are clearly encouraged to cheer when she defeats Germans, making them the bad guys. The Germans attack Themyscira without provocation, they murder civilians, and it’s to them Ares goes with his diabolical weapons. The Allies display no such behavior, and if Ares ever gave them horrific weapons, the film doesn’t show it.

If the Germans are the villains in this conflict, then war itself isn’t really the problem; Germans are the problem. Wonder Woman should probably devote her considerable power to defeating them as quickly as possible. The message is further confused at the end when Wonder Woman decides not to give in to her rage and kill a major villain. This is supposed to be Wonder Woman taking a stand against the evils of war, but it’s a bit late since just a few seconds ago she went berserk and slaughtered a whole group of rank-and-file soldiers. Did those soldiers need to die more than the villain, who was largely responsible for Germany’s use of horrific poison gas?

The film tries to balance this out by showing some German commanders who want peace before they’re killed by General Ludendorff, but it’s not enough. The message is further weakened when the film reveals that Ares himself is behind the upcoming armistice to end the war, which implies that peace is bad and war is good, but the God of War is bad. Sure.

2. Star Trek: The Outcast

Riker and Soren from TNG's the Outcast.

Star Trek has a long history of blatant messaging, but one area it’s constantly lagged behind is queer representation. For much of its history, Trek pretended LGBT people didn’t exist, despite promises from Roddenberry that The Next Generation would have a gay character. Then, in season five, everything changed, though not for the better.

The Outcast is an episode that attempts to parallel the struggle for gay rights but uses aliens as a stand in. In a vacuum, that’s not a bad idea. It would allow the writers to explore the issue without the disheartening message that homophobia has survived into the 24th century. Unfortunately, the episode’s actual message was a disaster.

First, no gay people exist in this episode paralleling gay rights. We see several couples holding hands in Ten Forward, but all of them are made up of a woman and a man. Then, when Riker explains human sexuality to his alien romantic interest, he does so in purely heterosexual terms.*

Then, we get to the aliens who are supposed to parallel the struggle for gay rights. In short, they are a monogendered culture that violently suppresses anyone who express a desire to present as either male or female. Soren, Riker’s romantic interest, is a victim of such suppression. Soren identifies as a woman and lives in secret until someone notices her dalliance with the Enterprise’s first officer.

Soren is then put on trial for wanting to be heterosexual. The aliens are all played by women, which makes the whole thing read like a planet of lesbians trying to oppress the one straight woman. This is what’s known as a “simple reversal,” similar to creating a world where men are the target of sexism in exactly the same way women are in real life. Simple reversals rarely work, because they cast a disenfranchised group in the role of villain. While they might provoke some people to consider real-life oppression, simple reversals are just as likely to make an audience think “whew, glad we don’t live in a world where those people are empowered.”

Taken together, the lack of gay humans and the evil gay aliens leaves The Outcast’s message in tatters. It was a half hearted, poorly thought out attempt, and it had predictable results.

3. District 9

An alien being held at gunpoint in District 9.

Based on the short film Alive in Johannesburg, District 9 is a story of alien refugees arriving in South Africa, only to be forced into a walled-off district and treated like garbage. The film is a clear parallel to apartheid and racism in general. It uses aliens to showcase the horrible ways humans are often treated. At least it tries to.

The first place District 9 stumbles is in its portrayal of the aliens. As you’d expect, they suffer from a number of stereotypes put on them by humans. The aliens are widely believed to be of low intelligence and incapable of taking care of themselves, similar to the way racial minorities are often called lazy and stupid. The problem is that as far as the film shows us, the stereotypes are true.

We don’t actually spend a lot of time with the aliens, but most of what the film shows us revolves around their trading advanced technology for cheap cat food. Keep in mind that by the time the film starts, the aliens have been on Earth for nearly 30 years, and yet they’re still willing to trade laser guns for a few dollars worth of canned tuna. The only alien we see who acts intelligent is the supporting protagonist, who has a human name and wears human clothes. This was probably a visual trick to help distinguish him, but it still sends the message that the more admirable aliens are those that best resemble their oppressors.

But at least the aliens don’t really exist. Worse is the film’s treatment of actual humans. In this film about racism set in South Africa, the protagonist is a white human man. The film focuses on his character arc above all things. So not only did the film makers pass up an obvious opportunity to cast an actor of color, but they focused their story on the oppressor rather than the oppressed.

And then there are the Nigerians. One of the film’s secondary antagonists is a gang of Nigerian smugglers, and they are… problematic. Their base is full of stereotypical “darkest Africa” style decorations, and they have a witch doctor on staff that they consult for important decisions. If that wasn’t enough, their leader is convinced he can gain the aliens’ power by consuming their flesh. Their entire portrayal comes across as animalistic, and they make up most of the film’s black cast. That might undermine the anti-racist message just a bit.

4. His Dark Materials

The Golden Compass from His Dark Materials.

This cross dimensional steampunk fantasy series is well known as an atheist takedown of Catholicism. The big bads are the Church and God,* both of whom want to control and subjugate humanity. On the other side, Lord Asriel builds an army to challenge Heaven and win freedom for all. Heck, the book even reveals that God didn’t create the universe, he just found it and declared himself ruler. Can’t get much clearer than that.

But things get a lot muddier when you examine the specifics. You see, Lord Asriel’s story is that he leaves his home dimension to wage war against God, but it never explains how he knew God was real. There’s no divine magic in his world, no oracles who speak to the Almighty. There’s exactly as much evidence that God exists in Asriel’s world as there is in ours. Ironically, Asriel takes the existence of God completely on faith, which goes against a core principle of atheism.

The issue is further confused because as the book goes on, it’s revealed that while God does exist in this setting, he doesn’t actively interfere in the lives of mortals. He just sits in his own dimension, presumably laughing at human attempts to reconcile free will with a deterministic universe. The only reason Asriel has anyone to fight is that in a complete coincidence, the angel Metatron has recently seized control of Heaven and is planning to start actively meddling with humans. That’s fortunate for Asriel, because otherwise things would have been really awkward. “I’m here to fight you, God!” “Why? I’m just up here playing solitaire.”

At the end, it’s even revealed that Metatron imprisoned God in a magic cage. So in this story of rebelling against God, the villain is also someone who rebelled against God? Is rebelling against God good or bad? I’m so confused!

But all of this pales in comparison to the fact that Lord Asriel, the big atheist hero, is a child murderer. That’s not metaphorical, at the end of book one he literally kills a child in order to open a dimensional portal so he can go fight God. At the time this actually made perfect sense, because in the first book Lord Asriel was a secondary antagonist. It’s only in books two and three that the author decided he was an amazing hero that no one could stop praising. In the first book, Asriel wasn’t even trying to fight God. That motivation was retconned in over his original plans to destroy death itself.

With this change of direction, the author turned a child-murdering villain into an atheist hero. Considering how religious extremists love to paint atheists as child murders in real life, this wasn’t a good move.

5. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

The cast of Time Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

Lewis Carrol’s surrealist fantasy story has been remade and adapted countless times, but never has it featured a message as blatant as Tim Burton’s version: Alice must stand up for herself and not do what others tell her to do. You see, at the beginning, Alice is engaged to marry a man she has no interest in. She’s told she must do this for the good of her family’s finances. From there, she falls into Wonderland and goes on an adventure that empowers her to assert herself and claim what she wants. Except not.

When Alice arrives in Wonderland, she’s told that because of an ancient prophesy, she’s destined to slay the Jabberwocky and end the Queen of Hearts’ evil reign.* Just one problem: Alice doesn’t want to kill the Jabberwocky. Strange as it may seem, this protagonist of a fantasy film isn’t interested in killing another sapient being. But the residents of Wonderland are persistent, telling her that she must put aside her personal feelings and act for the greater good. Hmm, why does that sound familiar?

Worse, we later find out that despite her status as the chosen instrument of destiny, Alice isn’t actually that important to the process. It turns out the Vorpal Sword will do all the work, she just has to hold onto it. At one point, the Jabberwocky even mocks her as an “insignificant bearer.” So not only does she have no choice in the process, but she’s also a completely passive entity.

If you’re expecting the film to pull a sudden twist where Alice rejects her destiny and doesn’t kill the Jabberwocky, you’re not alone. I couldn’t believe the filmmakers would be so tone deaf, but it turned out they were. Alice kills the Jabberwocky like everyone expects, or at least she holds onto the Vorpal Sword while it kills the Jabberwocky. Then she returns to her own world and acts as if her experience has somehow empowered her to reject the arranged marriage, even though everything she learned taught her the exact opposite.

Alice’s problem at the start of the film is that she’s expected to put aside her own desires and do what’s best for others. Then her adventure in Wonderland is all about her putting aside her own desires to do what’s best for others. But somehow at the end, she pulls an about face and rejects what others want from her in favor of her own happiness. The message isn’t just undermined, it’s completely contradicted. The fact that both her arranged marriage and fighting the Jabberwocky involve her passively accepting a phallic symbol just makes the whole thing a little grosser.


A story’s message is what gives it staying power. Writing styles and dramatic conventions change quickly, but a strong message can last for centuries. That’s why it’s so important not to undermine the messages in your own work. A confused message is less likely to resonate with the audience, and so the story will be quickly forgotten. But if a story supports a good message, it can go far indeed.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Adam Reynolds

    I actually wonder if any story that uses fantastic racism as an allegory has this problem to some degree. Even ones that do a better job than District 9, like Zootopia or Mass Effect, still have this problem. In short it is that any such story equates judging by species as racist, which is at least partially accurate in nearly every case.

    In Mass Effect, a krogan is far more likely to be aggressive than a salarian, not to mention that an untrained salarian is no threat to anyone, while literally every krogan is extremely strong and dangerous. In Zootopia, the ZPD and organized crime figures are generally predators, while a bunny is easily squashed by an elephant.

    This comparison is actually one uses by racists to some extent, in which it is often thought that African Americans are naturally more athletic and less intellectual, while Asian-Americans are often thought to naturally fit the nerd stereotype. Whatever observed differences that do exist are almost entirely cultural, with biology playing almost no role. But in a fantastic setting, it really does play a role in addition to culture.

    For a non-racial example as alluded to in last week’s post, the X-men have the similar problem in that unlike any real group they are a genuine threat to others in ways often not easily countered by normal means. It certainly doesn’t justify outright killing them, but allowing the government to now who they are and what exactly their abilities are doesn’t seem unreasonable. In a way it is almost more like an argument about gun control than it is about oppression.

  2. SunlessNick

    The message is further weakened when the film reveals that Ares himself is behind the upcoming armistice to end the war, which implies that peace is bad and war is good, but the God of War is bad. Sure.

    Well, no, it implies that he’s setting the armistice up to fail, so that the peace – which will inevitably come sooner or later – won’t last. More than implies really, he directly says it.

    Simple reversals rarely work, because they cast a disenfranchised group in the role of villain.

    They also tend to focus on the most extreme ends of predudices, pretending the whole ubiquitous spectrum up until that doesn’t exist.

    The fact that both her arranged marriage and fighting the Jabberwocky involve her passively accepting a phallic symbol just makes the whole thing a little grosser.

    That what comes of the director only really being interested in the Mad Hatter, I suppose.

    • JackbeThimble

      I’m hesitant to give the makers of the story the benefit of the doubt on this, considering how historically ignorant they are about everything else in the movie, but if you remember what happened as a result the armistice and the treaty of Versailles that followed, you may get an idea as to what Ares’ plan was.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I considered that the implication might be that Ares is setting up the Treaty of Versailles, and thus WWII, but that doesn’t hold up. It’s generally accepted that the extreme punishment of Germany in the treaty was a major cause of WWII, while Ares seems to be pushing for a much more amicable peace.

      Now it’s always possible that the film makers think WWII happened because Germany wasn’t punished *more* at the end of WWI, but if so then their understanding of history is poor indeed.

      • SunlessNick

        Mm, I saw him as “pushing” for a more amicable peace, while *actually* pushing (that whispering in ears he tends to do) for a much harsher one.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        If Ares was trying to be super sneaky about setting up a harsher treaty with Germany, I saw no sign of it, but more importantly, he has no reason to be duplicitous about it. Anti-German feeling was at all time highs in the Allied governments, if he’d just said “let’s punish Germany with this treaty so that they can never make war again,” everyone would have gone along with it easily, except maybe POTUS Wilson.

        By publicly pushing for a fair peace, he was just making life harder for himself if his goal was indeed to create the Treaty of Versailles that happened in real life and contributed to the Nazi rise.

        • SunlessNick

          What while Ares is the god of war, he (in this version) actually promotes war because it’s his evidence of humanity’s inadequacy. By ostensibly – but ineffectually – pushing for a fairer peace, he gets to say the better option was there, but the Allied governments didn’t take it.

  3. Fred F

    I think everyone misses the point of District 9. Xenophobia is a huge problem in South Africa. Every now and then we have a small war where a number of foreigners are killed by locals. All because of stereotypes. I think THAT is what the movie is really about. And that’s why it shows these blatant stereotypes. White people are racist. Indians are sneaky. Nigerians are drug lords etc. It’s satire based on exaggeration.

  4. Tiberia

    Lord Asriel as described sounds like a Maltheist Hero, not an Atheist Hero. Atheism is the belief in God’s Nonexistence (Tho Adeism would be a better term, but that’s a topic for another day). Maltheism is the belief that god is not Benevolent, and may even be Malevolent. Taking God’s existence on faith does go against Atheism, but not Maltheism. An Atheist wouldn’t believe there was a god to even fight. A Maltheist would

    I haven’t read the books myself, so for all I know the books are the ones Declaring Lord Asriel an atheist, rather than a maltheist. Just wanted to dip in and share a bit of extra terminology

    • Alverant

      Excellent points. My only counter would be that more people know what an Atheist is than a Maltheist. The Pathfinder book, “Death’s Heretic” also has a Maltheist but the word is rarely used because it’s not as familiar to the average reader. Ironically it’s overall easier to argue for Maltheism than Atheism. One argument could go, “Are you going to believe a god who told his highest follower to slaughter civilian and take sex slaves is going to reward your worship. What kind of credibility does that god have?”

    • Sam Victors

      There’s also Misotheism, which is hatred of god/s, which many fundamentalist theists accuse atheists of.

  5. Graeme Sutton

    The biggest problem with Wonderwoman is that she and the amazons presented as somehow being able to save humanity from the flaws that make it so violent when they are repeatedly shown to have all of those flaws (xenophobia, vengeance, stereotyping of others) themselves. In fact, because they’re so naive and isolated they actually have these traits worse than normal humans do.

  6. Carl

    Well, with stories like Alice in Wonderland, it’s much less about the story as it is the spectacle. Plus, I thought the moral of the story was less about “standing up for what you want” as it was about “being creative, not letting people tell you what’s possible and what’s not”.

  7. Kathy Ferguson

    Thanks for this great analysis. One more annoying thing about TNG’s “The Outcast” is the impoverished representation of a society without gender dualism. The Jenai are an unattractive group in nearly all respects, from their authoritarian politics to their bad haircuts. Of course the audience will identify with Soren and hope for her liberation – she’s the only sympathetic character on the whole planet.

  8. Julia

    I really liked Wonder Woman but remember my eyebrows going up as she slaughtered the German soldiers. Wait – was this okay because they were proto-Nazis?

    Also I remember Jonathan Frakes saying that ‘The Outcast’ could have been more ground breaking (for its time) if Soren leaned towards the male end of the spectrum. I think Frakes was willing to go there, but the producers chickened out.

  9. VoidCaller

    As Catholic I have to argue that cosmology of “His dark materials” does not sound like Christian one. Several core tenets are different.
    1. Authority is demiurge of limited power, God is omnipotent creator.
    2. Authority wants to control everybody, God wants everybody to be free. If He wanted absolute mind control, there would be nothing stoping Him.
    3. Afterlife looks more like bleaker Greek underworld than anything Christian.
    Could someone correct me if I am wrong? And can someone explain exactly why books cosmology is compared to Christian one?

    Sorry for errors, its my second languege.

    • Chris Winkle

      The books make a lot of references to original sin, Adam and Eve, Kingdom of Heaven etc, as though they are part of the story world. Certainly Pullman is putting his own spin on things, but those kinds of reference communicate pretty clearly that he is using a strange form of Christian cosmology, even if it’s different from what real world Christians believe or practice.

      • VoidCaller

        That explains controversy and why some people are against those books. Changing parts of our cosmology is for us horrible transgression. And thats reason why so many Christians ask writers to respect things that are holy to us and to not use them as fantasy. Sadly, debate often shifts into quarrel, because all sides have to many unintelectual or rude members. Pitty, because matter is serious.

        But being against mixing theology and storytelling aside, Oren has spotted very serious contradiction. We have misotheist and child murderer, who rebels against forces, which might not even exist and that guy is called atheist hero. Guy who belives that:
        1. End justifies the means enough to kill child.
        2. Belivies that there is evil divine force to fight against.
        These two things disqualify him as 1. hero 2. atheist.

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