Aspects of Social Commentary in Fiction

I know, I know...I'm riveting.

  • Good social commentary must have a clear and cohesive message.
  • Good social commentary must be well supported within the work.
  • Good social commentary must portray the world and its characters in a realistic fashion.
  • Review of Clash of the Titans (2010)
  • Saturday’s Crazy Prayer Request: *Pray that the National Guard would go to war with the psychiatrists because they are poisoning the country with their drugs and all the psychiatrists need to die.*

After the debate over my post about the movie Easy A I have decided to use this post to do two things.  1) I will explain what I look for in a book or movie to label it good social commentary and 2) I will give an example of these by critiquing an extremely poor example of social commentary.

The three aspects of social commentary:

1)     Clarity and Cohesiveness of message:  Any movie, book, song, or play when being examined for the social commentary within it must have a clear message which it attempts to put forward a cohesive argument in its presentation of this message.  This is especially important for movies and songs due to their limited length.  The message, or messages, contained within a story must be understandable to the recipient.  Moreover these messages must be consistent through the course of the story.  This is not to say that a story cannot contain a complicated interplay between conflicting messages (the work of Steven Erikson in the Malazan Book of the Fallen is an excellent example of this, as is the movie Doubt).  In similar fashion if the message of a work is contradicted within that work this inevitably leads to confusion in the mind of the audience.

2)    Support for the message:  In an academic paper a writer is expected to give outside support for his/her opinions and arguments.  In a work of fiction support for the intended message is equally as important but must be given in the form of example rather than in the form of citation.  If the message of a work is not supported then it will, inevitably, go unheard.  If the message of a work is insubstantially or ineffectively supported then it will be ridiculed and ignored.  The message of a work must be clearly supported within the work by substantive examples which effectively deal with both the message itself and common arguments against the message or problems it faces (within the scope of the intended message).  For example, if the major message of a work is active in nature (for instance that morality is a good thing) than the examples used within the work must show evidence for this*.  Alternatively if the message is philosophical in nature** then the example within must explore the philosophical implications of the message within.

3)    Realism within the story:  Every story intending to give a message must portray that message in a way which relates to the real world.  While all fiction is unreal by nature and some genres (fantasy and sci-fi in particular) take place outside of the real world they must still portray something about the real world.  As V says in the movie V for Vendetta ‘Actors lie to say something true about the world’.  This is the case for writers as well.  If I, as a writer, want to be successful in sharing my message then my stories must say something real about the world.  Fantasy and Science Fiction create alternate worlds in order to better portray their messages.  Because of this these twinned genres have become the staple for moral, philosophical, and political commentary in fiction.  However, no matter how fantastic the worlds we create, our stories must always be founded in and return to what is real in the messages we intend to convey***.

Didn't you hear me, I said 'I'm RIVETING!' Wake Up!

As a closing remark on what to look for when assessing social commentary in fiction please note that it is not necessary for one to agree with the commentary being made.  An academic, political, or religious position can be argued and supported well even though one might disagree with said position.  In the same way a work may contain social commentary of high quality even though one disagrees with the points being made.  The quality of social commentary is not determined by one’s belief in the message therein but in the way said message is communicated through the work.


Now I will move on to a brief consideration of the movie Clash of the Titans (2010).  This movie was not a good example of social commentary.  At all.  While it was entertaining, its special effects were suitably impressive, the action was involving, and the writing was mediocre at worst, the movie had one, single, overarching message that can best be conveyed as ‘Boo on gods, we don’t need them!’

Overall the movie was a romp of humanist messages stuffed together and thrown at the viewer without any regard for order or understanding.  The movie contradicts its central theme several times in a vain attempt to portray a growing relationship between the main character (whose name will not be mentioned because to do so would be to defile a beloved Greek hero) and his father, Zeus.  This relationship is then destroyed at the end of the movie when the main character rejects it in order to reinforce the movie’s central theme.

But it has some great visuals.

The movie gives little actual support to its central theme; rather it simply repeats the message in a variety of different ways.  Furthermore it is unrealistic in more or less every way.  Perhaps the best example of this (or at least the most humorous) is the only religious character in the movie.  This odd priest is a combination of Christian/Islamic/Religious fanatic/60’s era Zen/Buddhist hippy and a dandified Roman hero****.  The priest does not act rationally, nor does the movie give any support or explanation of his actions.  He is a ridiculous attempt at an assault of people of religion which winds up being both nonsensical and ineffective.

Ultimately the message contained within Clash of the Titans (2010) are not clearly presented.  It is garbled, though understandable, completely unsupported within the context of the movie, and failing the test of realism.  That being said the movie is most definitely an entertaining and action-packed experience.


* In Easy A the central message, that morality is important even to those who lack belief in a particular deity, is well supported by the characters and events in the movie.

And just in case your education is lacking, Zues is actually Scottish...apparently.

** The movie Doubt is an excellent example of this.  The theme of the movie is doubt, while the setting is religious in nature the theme relates to doubt in general.  The movie exemplifies the nature of doubt by eliciting it in the viewer, doubt about the characters in the movie, doubt about their motives, and doubt about the ‘truth’ of the events portrayed.  Doubt effectively communicates the nature of doubt, as well as its potential for both positive, and negative, consequences.

*** This is where the movie Easy A found trouble.  The scenes used to support its main theme portrayed reality well.  However some of its sub-themes were not handled in a realistic fashion, particularly those having to do with the nature of Christianity.

****There are several stories about Roman heroes who put one of their hands into a flaming brazier in order to prove their strength and courage to an enemy.  One in particular comes to mind about a Roman, during the late kingdom age of Rome, who was sent out to parley with Etruscan attackers at the gate of the city.  I do not remember the Roman’s Latin name, but it translates to Lefty.  Generally these heroes hold their hand in the flames until the flesh is completely burned away, thus proving the will of the Roman people and frightening away the potential enemies.  In Clash of the Titans (2010) the religious figure sticks his hand into a flaming brazier and holds it there…until it begins to blister.  In comparison to the Roman heroes the man is a wimp.


About noothergods

I hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.

Posted on January 29, 2011, in Educational Resources, Movie Reviews, Social Commentary, Tobias Mastgrave and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Personally, I didn’t find Clash of the Titans all that entertaining, but then I didn’t like Avatar, either.

    • I’m entertained by a lot of movies that aren’t any good. I though Clash of the Titans was hilarious, and it did have some great special effects.

      • The visuals were pleasing, but the story itself was slaughtered and not put back together well. This is like a frankenstein with shoddy stitches. And missing parts. Oh, and the foot bone is connected to the shoulder bone instead of the ankle bone. Frankly, I’m surprised you were willing to mention the movie’s name, but not the hero’s. The movie’s name is as much an insult to a much beloved story.

  2. Good clarification over all, but since you bring it up, I have one question still about Easy A, and then one overarching thought.

    First, you say here that good social commentary must deal with the significant, anticipated objections to its main theme. That was one of my criticism of the movie–that it completely ignored the very significant theme of atheism’s moral binding power on its followers. It highlights the fact that atheists can be just as moral as everyone else on the practical level, while ignoring that their reasons for acting that way are far flimsier than usual. Shouldn’t that be a strike against it too?

    Secondly, I think that your points are leaving out a huge issue: that of the theme’s truthfulness. If we just leave it with “good social commentary is defined by its presentation, not its content,” then we could have no objection to Nazi social commentary, for instance, as long as their hatred for the Jews was properly conveyed.

    That’s something that unthinking relativists might consider collateral damage to their worldview, ignore it, and then just not talk about it. I don’t think that we as thinking Christians have that luxury.

    • For your first point on Easy A, this is why I made the distinction in my post between something that has a practical message and something that has a philosophical message. Especially in a movie, where the makers have a very limited amount of space to make and support their points, the primary issue must be well defined and not deviated from without a significant reason. In Easy A we see bad Christians because they are the antagonists in the movie, without the scenes portraying the antagonist there wouldn’t be much of a movie.

      Their point however is a very practical one and I think that they did a good job addressing the practical issues without deviating into an extended moral/philosophical discussion. Now if the movie had been two hours longer then it was and not addressed any moral/philosophical issues I would have a problem with it.

      As I pointed out the movie Doubt is a good example of the opposite intention. The movie pays virtually no attention to the practical implications and consequences of a priest being accused of child molestation. The point of the movie was not to address the issue of child molestation. Instead the point of the movie was to address the issue of doubt, the accusations were simply the tool used to create that doubt. Again if this movie had been two hours longer and still failed to address the practical issues surrounding the accusations in a significant way then it would have been a very poor movie.

      As for your argument of truth in social commentary, this quickly becomes an issue of Epistemology which I don’t want to get into here. Suffice it to say that Hitler’s propaganda campaign was brilliant. Anyone who has put even a minute amount of research into the man will realize this. The question which surfaces is ‘was it realistic?’ Hitler’s propaganda was, and modern Neo-Nazi and racist propaganda can be, very emotionally moving. However does it give a realistic portrayal of Jews, African-Americans, Orientals, etc. Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time around these racial groups can tell you that it doesn’t, and what is truth if not reality?

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