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Working with Political Agendas

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, June 15, 2019

Lately more and more comics and animated features seem to consciously, and more importantly loudly, incorporate political messages in their stories. From feminism to social stratification and discrimination, to racism and xenophobia or even depression and psychological trauma.

This is by no means a new thing, to incorporate themes and messages intended to be gotten across to audiences. The very first stories ever told were likely told with this exact purpose in mind. And it worked, and worked well, and we're still using stories to teach people or stimulate people to think about certain ideas today and likely will for as long as human civilization exists.

The problem that seems to get audiences at odds with creators to the point that entire hit pieces are written in relevant press articles to force audiences to conform to the desired reception of a creative work, is the delivery.

A frequent gripe is that there is a lot of soapbox lecturing happening in stories and very little story telling. Another is that the paradigms presented in the story are such that throw audiences out of the story, for the only reason that in order to create the paradigm the characters, setting or premise of the story is completely bent out of shape.

Another frequent gripe is that the story is rushed, lackluster or not thought through, and thus a message that could come across as organic to the story is in the end received as a gimmicky sketch resembling fanfiction than the original IP, whatever it is.

What I tend to hear as a defense for weak storytelling in stories that are heavily imbued with some kind of political message, is that the message is important to the point that the story isn't. Or, of course, a whole range of ad hominems thrown at the audience, rather than even an argument, which are laughable at best even when directed at one individual let alone whole bundled groups of them.

To this I disagree. I believe that when it comes to storytelling, be it in novels or movies or webcomics, the more engaging and powerful the story, the more impactful the message it carries, whether it is right or wrong.

I wish to illustrate that with a heavily political movie whose message I hated but which was masterfully done in every aspect, from story to direction.

And that movie is none other than The Green Mile.

I won't get into its analysis in this article, but suffice it to say that the message of the movie revolves around a certain Christian denomination's understanding of scripture and/or a take on good vs evil and right vs wrong (including racism and Southern USA politics of 1935).

I profoundly disagreed with the message (and the answers) the movie gave so much so that ever since I have felt a certain kind of contempt for Tom Hanks, whom I used to really like up until then.

But the reason I had such a powerful reaction in my mind and in my heart was because the story was powerful and it was masterfully presented.

That is to say, that the message was woven into the story in three main ways:

1. It was an organic part of the setting, and felt natural to see elements of it (i.e. racism)

2. The characters were driven by their own personal backgrounds and motivations, and felt like real people (likeable or not) rather than like sock puppets for the hand of the author to go in and plant words in their mouths.

3. The issues that were being discussed were being shown rather than told. That is to say, the characters didn't think to philosophize or preach to each other, they interacted in practical manners as befit their character parameters.

In the end, there's nothing wrong with incorporating a political agenda in your story. In fact, one way or the other, we all do whether we want to or not, as we are creatures of our own background and our background's politics will seep through to some degree even if we don't want that to happen.

What should be the case is for this political agenda to be allowed to mesh with the story and the characters, and become part of the story rather than projected onto it.

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bravo1102 at 7:37AM, June 17, 2019

And show, don't tell. Illustrate your point, not put it into the mouth of a character to spout like some interminable Ayn Rand novel. :D

Ozoneocean at 3:13AM, June 17, 2019

What we say in the Quackcast is that when poorly expressed your message becomes propaganda, which means it's only there to preach to your own choir, and that is pointless unless you need to motivate them to do something. No one is convinced by those who shout the loudest. If you want to change mines or at least get people to consider your ideas and see things from a different point of view then you MUST NOT preach at them.

bravo1102 at 2:14AM, June 17, 2019

Can't we all just conga? Love that gif.

AmeliaP at 6:17PM, June 16, 2019

Great article! Have you noticed the dialogue is awkward on those stories/movies/comics/games which defend a political agenda? I know people internalize a concept by repetition, but what they're trying to do is hypnosis XD

Banes at 3:06PM, June 16, 2019

Kou the Mad - you said it perfectly!

ShaRose49 at 10:05PM, June 15, 2019

@Kou the Mad I couldn’t have said it better myself XD

Kou the Mad at 2:02PM, June 15, 2019

Whether your preaching Leftist Ideology, Right Wing, A Religious Message, a Message against Religion, Pro LGBT, Anti LGBT, etc. You can't shove the message down peoples' throats, all it does is make the audience go "Just stop and tell the story.". It's at it's worst when done for brownie points coughcaptainmarvelcough coughsherarebootcough. You can include your message in your work, but you CANNOT do it at the detriment of the story and alienating the old fanbase in the case of Reboots and new entries to old IPs.

usedbooks at 11:28AM, June 15, 2019

When coming out of the theater after watching Kingsman 2, a lady was clearly deeply affected by the "message" and said in the tone of someone having just witnessed a religious revival, "It really makes you think."

ShaRose49 at 11:18AM, June 15, 2019

For example, the new Aladdin movie had some strong messages that I for the most part didn’t disagree with, but t times they were so on the nose it felt like I was a kid in Sunday School or something. “Yes, that’s a good message, we get it, you don’t have to say it that many times.” I think my point is that a message is more powerful when it’s shown rather than just told to the audience.

ShaRose49 at 11:05AM, June 15, 2019

I can’t stand overly preachy stories, whether that be some extreme right-wing agenda or an extreme left-one, or even a religious one. I’m not saying that these agendas are necessarily wrong, but when you get super preachy and try really hard to be “progressive” or to play up to critics, you get this childish story that’s really just glorified propaganda. My own stories sometimes have some religious themes and the like, but I don’t ever want those to divert from the story that is being told, or to be forced at anyone. And I also think it’s good to show both sides of an argument to some degree, or at least not completely villainize a certain group of people, (which people tend to do with right-wing politics or certain religious groups). Robert McKee says in his fantastic book “Story” that it’s about respect, not disdain, for your audience. And like it or not you’re never going to have an audience who agrees with you on everything.

Coydog at 8:31AM, June 15, 2019

The problem with political messages in works of fiction is, generally, they polarize. I try to keep any politics in harness to the internal logic of the story and setting and... subtle. Letting this get away from you risks getting pulled into the current situation on the broader internet with "Snowflakes vs. Hatey-Hatersons". The last time people in the U.S. were this estranged, it was oh, about 1860 or thereabouts? I wonnnnderrrrr what happened after that? (whistling and sashaying away)

KAM at 5:47AM, June 15, 2019

The problem with sending a message is that maybe half the audience for your work will have voted opposite of you. This is one reason why old TV shows usually tried to address "both sides." (The other reason being the Fairness Doctrine.) If you take one side of an issue and regard people who have the opposite opinion as idiots you're going to lose all those "idiots" as audience members. Oddly enough, the worst offenders of "message entertainment" these days actually seem to prefer losing dissenting opinions and preaching to the converted. *shrug*

KAM at 5:31AM, June 15, 2019

Samuel Goldwyn, "Pictures were made to entertain; if you want to send a message, call Western Union." :-)

Ozoneocean at 4:09AM, June 15, 2019

A story with a very powerful political message is the novel by Margaret Atwood: A Handmaid's Tale. It's right up front and centre but it delivered expertly. Not with sugar coating or gentle, easy steps, it's just a well told story, as is Maus, V, and many other works. While something like Avatar with its message of tolerance for indigenous peoples and respect for the environment is an absolute joke and moderately offensive to boot- although still a very skilfully made, well acted and successful film.

usedbooks at 4:08AM, June 15, 2019

Ftr, if you haven't seen it, 1. Wall-E was about non-humanoid robots with no skin or skin tone. 2. Had two speaking human characters. 3. Had dark-skinned humans in every single human scene including the first one with live action people and the wall of photos of previous ship captains. (The person boycotting the "racist" movie, having clearly not seen a single scene from it, was repeating what she was told.)

usedbooks at 4:03AM, June 15, 2019

I once had some gun enthusiast excited about my story because they thought it had a pro-gun agenda. Certainly not my prerogative. One of my protagonists is a paranoid gun collector who always carries a firearm, but aside from law enforcement and antagonists, she's the only one. Another main protagonist literally wouldn't carry a weapon to save her life. While some writers build in agendas either deliberately or subconsciously, readers/viewers have their own biases to bring to the table. People read into things and see what they want to see. In the modern world, they usually read into stories whatever agenda they DON'T like. People love feeling opposed, persecuted, and offended. It's impossible to create a story that is "agenda free" because of the nature of the audience, and the great talent to discover things that offend -- even if they aren't there. (I once saw someone, who hadn't seen the movie, insist Wall-E was racist because it showed no black people.???)

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