Themes are Not Enough

A recent trend I’ve noticed in media criticism is to appeal to the thematic core of a work rather than the quality of the work. There’s value in examining themes, of course, looking at them gives us a baseline for analyzing techniques, progression and results. But just presenting themes is not in and of itself a merit of a story. Let’s step back and look at an example.

Jordan Peele’s Us is a horror film. It has themes of examining consumerism and corporate attempts to control American life through advertising. It executes on these themes (so I am told) in clunky, odd and poorly explained ways. Now, I’m not a fan of Jordan Peele, horror or Us. In fact, I’ve never seen the movie and I don’t have a particular dog in any fight about the quality of the film or the execution of its premise. I’ve chosen it particularly because I am about as neutral as it is possible to be regarding the story and its themes, and because it is a good example of the phenomenon I’ve noted before.

Discussions about Us all seem to revolve around, on the one hand, the nonsensical nature of the events it portrays (but come on, guys, it’s a horror film, none of them make sense) and on the other hand the weight of its thematic core. Most critics who are down on the film want the thoughts of the characters to make sense, or the mechanics of the world to be straight forward and sensible. Again, this second element mystifies me since it’s a horror movie and things that make sense kind of undercut the horror part but I can definitely agree with characters having sensible, consistent thoughts. So when a critic presents a series of moments in the film that show characters contradicting themselves for no reason, or the behaviors of the characters duplicates defying the limits and boundaries that supposedly define them, I understand where they’re coming from.

On the other hand, when people appeal to the strength of the themes in Us they tend to simply present the theme as relevant to the culture we live in. Again, I understand this. Us is poking at social stratification and consumerism, problems that exist in our culture . However, defenders of the film rarely do more than point out the elements that play up these themes. In particular, they never point out how playing to those themes necessitates, or at least excuses, the flaws in characterization or consistency that critics constantly harp on. They seem to think that the thematic levels Us works on justifies its failures in execution.

This is wrong.

Understanding and appreciating a work’s themes is fine. Conveying those themes is one of the responsibilities of the creator. But it’s far from the only responsibility. In fact, it’s the barest beginning of competent art. The artist also has a responsibility to clear away any and all obstacles that might obscure the message of their work, and that means creating character consistency, clear cause and effect in the narrative and making sure all other elements of good storytelling are in place. You cannot simply set good themes down as a foundation then throw your plot up in the air and hope it all lands fine. That is sloppy and lazy storytelling.

Let me take a small example from a story I have watched, where a thematic element was actually undermined by its execution. In The Dragon Prince Amaya is the general of the Katolian forces and she’s deaf. Thematically her story is about overcoming obstacles, both those presented by her disability and those that stem from her grief at the loss of her family. That’s a solid theme.

The problem I have is that Amaya is deaf. Being deaf creates all kinds of problems for a person in a leadership position, especially one that has such dire, real time constraints getting information across as military leadership. Amaya needs to be looking at her people to communicate with them, something as simple as a heavy fog can make it impossible for her to pass her orders to anyone who isn’t right next to her. And she lives in a world with magic where fog can appear on command. Add in the very important role of sound in providing situational awareness and making responses to danger possible – very important to the average soldier or general alike – and Amaya is badly in need of some kind of seriously unusual justification for her position. Yet she’s never shown with any more resources on hand to overcome her disability than the average deaf person on Earth.

It’s jarring and, frankly, more than a little pandering. And it feels more like Amaya has her position because she’s the Queen’s sister (or the writers wanted it that way) rather than a competent general. It’s bad storytelling stemming from a failure to think through the characters limits and it undercuts the thematic component of Amaya’s character.

Storytelling is hard, and in part it requires a storyteller to blend clear, mathematical cause and effect events with a strong emotional sense in ways that most people cannot quite achieve. Themes are an important part of that emotional sense but when decoupled from the clear cause and effect themes quickly begin to falter. If you’re dealing with both author and critic who are acting in good faith, pointing out when cause and effect lapses isn’t intended to ignore the strength of those themes, but rather to bolster them. When you stop using themes as a shield against criticism and instead look at themes through the lens of criticism you may even find they come in to sharper focus. Don’t be afraid to put the ideas at the heart of your story under that lens.

The Dragon Prince’s Good Intentions Misfired

Obligatory spoiler warning for The Dragon Prince. In case you haven’t watched it yet.

I like Netflix’s The Dragon Prince. However, like so many shows aimed at young people, the show has a heart, a moral message it’s trying to convey. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. And I even mostly agree with the points Dragon Prince is trying to get across. However, the trick to telling a moral story is making sure the story you tell conveys the message you intend. Good intentions don’t mean much if they don’t get through to your audience. And unfortunately, The Dragon Prince falls down on this count not once, but twice. These aren’t central to the story or its primary moral message, but they do stand out in contrast to an otherwise well done narrative and wholesome morals, so it bears mentioning.

Let me address a bit of an elephant in the room first. Both of these points revolve around characters who are disabled. In our world disabilities are hindrances that can be overcome with some work and understanding from the people around you. That’s good, and I am glad whenever I see people succeeding in spite of their disabilities. But unfortunately disabilities are just that – a lack of certain abilities. Those shortcomings are real, and need to be made up for. To pretend they don’t is to insult all those in the world who suffer from them and the work they must put in to overcome them.

I am aware that The Dragon Prince exists in a world of magic and the supernatural, and these factors could somehow make up for these physical disabilities. However, not only would that undercut the point of putting these characters in as an example of how disabilities do not prevent full and satisfying lives, the fact is one of these characters is clearly not compensating via magic and the other is using magic that explicitly does not compensate for her disability.

Now I’m not making the point that you can’t put disabled characters in your stories, even in swashbuckling adventure stories. But you can’t simply write those characters like their disabilities don’t exist some or all of the time. And I’m afraid that’s what The Dragon Prince does.

Let’s start with Amaya.

Amaya is the maternal aunt of Callum and Ezran, princes of a human kingdom on the border between humans and the magical races of Xadia. She spends most of her time at a fortress guarding a pass between the kingdom and Xadia. Amaya is also deaf.

Now immediately one might think that Amaya is never written like she’s not deaf. After all, she communicates in sign language and has an interpreter who has to pass on most of what she says, right?

Yes, she conforms to the most basic stereotypes of a deaf person in a world of hearing people. However, it’s the way that she relates to her job that is the sticking point here. Amaya is presented as a formidable fighter, and I suppose in some contexts that’s entirely possible for deaf people. But here’s a secret – hearing is the only human sense that allows us to assess a situation in all directions at once and through obstacles. For a soldier who expects to be in a melee on the battlefield going without hearing is almost worse than going without sight.

In fact, there’s one fight where Amaya is facing an enemy in front of her and a door bursts open behind her and she reacts to the sound. That’s a horrible breach in the established rules of the story, but Amaya can’t be presented as a formidable warrior without it – meaning the writers made a mistake somewhere along the line.

Worse than that is just how useless a battlefield leader who can’t hear is. In medieval times, which The Dragon Prince is clearly modeled on, almost all battlefield communication revolved around loud noises, beginning with yelling and moving up the line rapidly to horns and drums. Without her hearing Amaya cannot hear spoken updates from her troops or pick up on long distance signals via trumpet or drum. And sign language doesn’t seem to be universally understood in Xadia so there’s always the risk she’ll get stuck with soldiers who can’t understand her. Yes, she can read lips and understand reports from anyone that way, assuming they aren’t coming from someone in a full, face covering helmet. Yes, she has an aide who interprets for her and who can hear signals from other parts of the army that aren’t in line of sight. But the fact is, that still leaves her effectiveness dependent of the safety and health of a single soldier, or perhaps a small group of them, that can understand her.

Amaya commands the most important defensive structure in the kingdom. It makes no sense to have the entire chain of command there entirely dependent on a small handful of soldiers who can understand her, and who have to relay any signals from a distance to her. There are a lot of work arounds you could implement for this. Signal flags, for example. But they are all fragile (what if the fortress is attacked at night?) and this is the most important point in the kingdom. You don’t leave weak points in its defense.

I have a lot of thoughts on how the character of Amaya could have been tweaked to leave the essentials in place – deaf woman, aunt to the two children, fearsome fighter – without these problems in play. But that’s not the point I’m getting at. The point is, disabled people sometimes have to face the fact that, while they could do a thing they want to do, they may not fit that role as well as someone who does not have their particular disability. Or the work arounds necessary for them to fill that role will leave them inherently less suited to it than someone else. The Dragon Prince presents all possible considerations that would rightfully present obstacles to Amaya being a general as magically being ignored by the world around her, and that’s a very stupid expectation to offer.

However, while Amaya might set a disabled viewer up for a disappointment that pales in comparison to Ava.

Ava is a wolf who lost a leg to a bear trap. Ava was rescued by a young girl named Ellis who was told by her parents they couldn’t afford keep the animal and if returned to the wild the wolves would shun Ava because she couldn’t keep up with them. Ellis ran away with Ava and climbed the nearby mountain, braving many strange and frightening things to stumble across a “miracle healer” who returned Ava’s leg to normal. Only it turns out the miracle healer did no such thing.

In truth the “healer” was an illusionist who made it appear that Ava had a healthy leg, so people would be more “accepting”. Ava always had only three legs, she just needed the people around her to be comfortable with her in order to get by, so the illusionist obliged her.

This is colossally stupid. It doesn’t make any sense for Ellis’ parents to keep a healthy wolf but not a sickly one – if they couldn’t afford one they certainly couldn’t afford the other. It’s stupid, and worse, destructive, to create the illusion that when a child’s parents say “no” to something because the family cannot afford it it’s actually because the parents are uncomfortable with it. Children negotiate with this premise all the time (I know I did) but it only leads to tension in the family as parents get frustrated with their children’s pestering and the child builds distrust of parents. Not a good message.

Further, Ava carries two people on her back at times, as well as scrambling up rocks and ledges, as if she had two functioning front legs. Let me stress, the illusion created for Ava only looked and felt real – it wasn’t actually there. In which case, Ava acting like a normal wolf is stupid.

But the worst part of this is, it gives disabled children the impression that all they have to do to fit in is act like they aren’t disabled. No matter how much stress and pain this might cause them. Bottle it up. Pretend it’s not there.

Congratulations, Dragon Prince. You’ve contradicted your own point.

Again, disabled people are not less than healthy people, any more than someone with the flu is less than a healthy person. But their disabilities do have fundamental impacts on how they interact with the world. If you’re going to write fiction that includes these people you must. Must. Must. Be true to life in how these shortcomings will impact them, or you’re doing more harm than good. The Dragon Prince tried, but I’m not sure it managed. This time. Hopefully the writers can recover and do better in the future.