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What Is Subtext?

Works of art – like books, movies, plays and film – have what is called “multiple layers of meaning.” While there are discernable plots, viewers or readers can find hidden interpretations. These are called “subtext.” These are ideals, principles or controversial ideas that are submerged within the work. Some of them are hidden purposefully, in order to prevent a controversial topic from alienating an audience. Others were not consciously intended by the author, but were later drawn out by critics or analysts.

One excellent example of subtext is the cartoon Rocky & Bullwinkle which ran in the 60’s, at the same time as the cold war between Russia and the United States. While it seemed like a harmless and humorous children’s show, many believe that it was actually a political commentary.

A romantic story like American Beauty may, on the surface, seem to revolve around an ordinary guy going through midlife crisis, but it was actually a philosophical reflection on life and death. And E.T. was a cute movie about an even cuter alien (“E.T. phone home!”) but also played up on how humans can be very cruel to anything that is different—whether it be aliens, or other cultures. And the cult favorite Xena: Warrior Princess was a fun little fantasy adventure but quickly became a battlecry for the lesbian movement, as viewers became intent on the undercurrent of romance between Xena and Gabrielle.

Subtext, because it is hidden and often metaphorical, can be subject to debate. There is the danger of over-reading the text and seeing something that is not there – though literary theorists say that the purpose of analysis does not lie in discovering the author’s original meaning, but re-creating new meaning and relationships. That, they say, is what makes an art work alive: that every reader or viewer can find, in the work, something valuable.

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