q&a: why analyze things like there’s always a deeper meaning?

Posed by more than 50% of my class almost 100% of the time. This time, the particular unit was themed around fairytales, folktales, and myth, and on this particular day we were discussing a few versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”: Grimm, Perrault, Carter, and Gaiman (excerpted from Sandman: The Doll’s House). It was an uphill struggle to get them to see how each of the stories contained different messages about gender roles, sexuality, and the dangers of female independence, and they completely balked at discussing what the wolf could symbolize. It isn’t the first time I’ve come up against this question in a literature class, and students really do need to be convinced of why it’s important to read more deeply into things, especially since we are inundated with messages encoded into pop culture, particularly around identity construction.

Here, more or less, was my response.

This issue came up in class today: the question of why we have to read past the surface-level message of a story, or why we can’t just leave it at the most obvious message. I drafted this follow-up mini-lesson on my commute home so it’s by no means perfect, but my thoughts, I think, are mostly in place. You can consider this post a Zero Draft from me on the topic of literary analysis, and why it’s crucial to analyze literature and art in-depth, beyond a surface-level reading.

To begin with, here’s a scene from a short story. A man strolls into a bar. He’s wearing seductive clothing; his shirt is fire-engine red and wet from the rain, clings to his arms and chest. Catcalls erupt from a dark corner of the room. He instinctively reaches for his pocket, the mace he keeps there, just in case. There’s an empty seat at the bar, beside a man who’s half-passed out and leering at his empty shot glass; he skirts past the drunk and sits alone instead, keeps his eyes forward, and asks the bartender for a beer.

When I told this story in class, most of us recognized that it doesn’t “make sense.” The reason is that it doesn’t fit with our stereotypical view of the world. The tone of the piece is threatening and gloomy; we see darkness, rain, discomfort, fear of being attacked or approached by potential troublemakers; and yet, because the character is a man, these details may seem ludicrous. When we think of the color red and seduction, we tend to think of a woman in a red dress (hello, Freud!). We generally don’t think of men as being threatened by sexual innuendo, as this character is by the catcalls; we don’t think of them as being afraid to sit next to leering drunks, or feeling pressured to keep their eyes away from the other customers at the bar. Although these things can and do happen in reality for various reasons, to gendered and gender-nonconforming individuals, the stereotyped reality is that men do not need to be wary of sexual harassment, or that they should expect this kind of treatment at a bar.

Change the character to a woman, and suddenly this scene “makes sense.” This is because it’s what we expect. It doesn’t challenge our perception of traditional gender roles, and as such it seems “normal,” in keeping with “common sense.”

All of this is to say that when an author or artist makes the choice to use a female character over a male character, they do so intentionally to play into or contradict our cultural knowledge: stereotypes and other ideas that our culture and/or social situation has ingrained in us. It depends on the author’s desired effect, and this is one reason why it’s important to deconstruct literature thoroughly and not stop after a surface-level reading. Sure, you can get the story at face-value, but very little is accidental in art, even if it occurs subconsciously, and every artist has a desired effect in mind when they begin crafting.

Sometimes, as we see with fairytales, it’s easier or more comfortable to restate the obvious about a piece, especially if it inspires nostalgia in us, than to deconstruct it and figure out the real reason why it “made sense” to us as children and why it “makes sense” now. Decoding gender roles, racism, sexuality, human nature, and other uncomfortable or borderline-taboo subjects as they appear in things that are/were near and dear to us may seem like it’s “ruining” it. It’s like accusing Disney of racism in its children’s cartoons, or accusing early video game franchises of being racist and sexist. Certain types of media have become purveyors of a certain type of culture; in these cases, and in the case of fairytales, this is children’s culture, which we want to view as sacrosanct in some manner—because we want to believe what we experienced as children was innocent and pure and free of ugliness. (Related story: a year or so ago I was half-asleep on my sofa with the TV on and woke up halfway into a Captain Planet episode: the crew was in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and Wheeler was staggering up from a bench with lipstick marks all over his face, much to Linka’s disgust. Now kids might not “get” it in the same way adults do, but they get it at its most fundamental level: i.e., if you’re a man, you want women to kiss you; if you’re a woman, this kind of behavior—which later in life becomes defined as promiscuity—is to be frowned upon.) These messages are veiled in innocence, but when the veil is lifted, they function the same way as standard literature and art does: using a system of shared metaphors and symbols to draw on, reaffirm, or challenge our cultural knowledge.

Thus, the point of literary analysis is to better understand the cultural subtext(s) under which the story operates, and by doing so, better understand the social/cultural cues to which we respond in life, as well as the reasons why we respond the way we do. Essentially this goes along with our seeming class consensus that literature is a tool we use to learn about ourselves and the world we live in. Put simply, we aren’t learning that Wheeler likes being smooched by half-naked women at Mardi Gras, or that this offends Linka; what we are learning is that men, symbolized by Wheeler, are expected to behave this way, as women, symbolized by Linka, are as well. “Little Red Riding Hood” doesn’t simply teach us not to talk to strangers: otherwise, why did we laugh in class when I asked that someone retell the story with a male protagonist and a male wolf? We are being taught that women, symbolized by Little Red Riding Hood, can’t be trusted with independence, as they will be found and overpowered by male sexuality. Carter’s version overturns this notion, and the message would be similarly inverted if we had, say, a male protagonist and a she-wolf. This may “make sense” to us because we are already subconsciously familiar with the notion that female sexuality is dangerous to men, just as male sexuality is dangerous to women.

Our learning doesn’t stop at the literal, obvious moral, in literature, media, or any other representative form.  It’s the messages encoded in literature, and extracted through in-depth deconstruction, that teach us about our society, our culture, and ourselves.

Prof. Mani, Class Lecture 5/10/10

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