Fan Theories, Deep Reads And Second Guessing

A follow-up to the "Feral Kid" debunking.

You never know what's going to explode online. You can't really tell what will get popular. I had a feeling Scott's "My 70 year old mother-in-law reviews Mad Max" post would get some attention, but not as much as it got. And I thought my "Your Feral Kid is Mad Max Theory is bullshit" post would get some small attention on Facebook, but it ended up being bigger. It was a good week for Mad Max content. 

If I had assumed the article would have gone much wider, I would have written it slightly differently. No, not less 'angry' - I still think that's funny. I would have explained my definitions of 'fan theories' better. I've been getting a lot of comments, here and on Twitter, from people who don't quite see where I'm coming from, so let's try to break it all down. 

Deep reads: This is the best way to approach a work of fiction, in my opinion. I'm not going to get really academic here (this is Lit 101 stuff, mostly), but the basics of this are as follows: you take the text - the book, the movie, the song - and you try to figure out what it means. You don't second guess what happened, you try to understand what the author was attempting to get across with what happened. It's about metaphor - you accept the literal 'truth' of the text (unless the text is purposefully ambiguous about truth) but get to the underlying metaphors. The most obvious one in your lit classes is Animal Farm: yes, it's about animals on a farm, but it's also an allegory for the Russian Revolution and the early Stalinist era. More than that, it works as a metaphor for all sorts of revolutionary movements, even down to the power struggles at your own workplace. It's easy to accept this because the original subtitle is A Fairy Story and nobody's really getting up in arms about how the animals talk and all that. 

A few years ago I wrote a thing about how Inception is actually about filmmaking, with the members of the team mapping out to members of a movie production. The movie isn't actually about that - it's about dream heists and shit - but it's about that. The analysis doesn't deny the text in any way, and it isn't trying to find gaps in the text to fill in with fan glue. It's getting to the deeper meaning of the text, and trying to understand it in a more full way beyond the literal narrative. Shit can get really weird when you accept Death of the Author - the idea that a work must be approached on its own, as you see it, not as it was intended. The author's role ends when the work is distributed, and how you interpret the meaning of the movie/book is up to you. Again, it's not about denying or supplanting the narrative but rather finding the metaphorical and allegorical underpinnings of the narrative. 

Since this all started with Mad Max: Fury Road, here's a great Reddit post that maps characters from the film onto the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A snippet: 

The Bullet Farmer represents War. This is an easy one but hear me out. The Christian horseman isn't simply the embodiment of all war, it is the embodiment of unchecked aggression and "non-righteous" conflict. In a modern sense, War is simply unchecked militarism and internecine warfare. The Bullet Farmer doesn't merely represent these qualities, he actively pursues them. When the rest of the group is stuck in the mud and the three warlords have a talk, The People Eater tells him to wait and not hurt the "wives", but instead he goes riding off alone (unchecked aggression) and fires wildly with no regard to who he hits (collateral damage/internecine warfare/"friendly fire").

The People Eater represents Famine. "But he's fat!", you say. Read on, this requires more backstory of the Christian horseman. Famine is generally shown carrying weighing scales to measure grain during a famine. When he appears Saint John hears an exclamation on the prices of grain, but it then concludes:

and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine

Why does the voice say this? It's generally interpreted to mean that luxury goods should remain unaffected by famine, meaning the rich will not suffer, while the poor will. In this way, Famine also embodies the injustice and gluttony of the rich. We see this reflected in the characters surrounding The People Eater - many will resort to eating mutant salamanders, whereas TPE is extremely obese and has major gout, he is obviously well-fed.

TPE also embodies Famine in his name. Throughout history there are recurring episodes of cannibalism practiced by people who were not getting enough nutrients.

It's a pretty great read of the movie, and I love who the author posits as Death. Are these characters actually War and Pestilence and Famine and Death? No, clearly. They're the Bullet Farmer and The People Eater and Immortan Joe. But they're also those other things, under the surface. 

Fan Theory: If deep reads are about getting under the surface, fan theories are about getting stuck on the surface and never going anywhere. It's about trying to tie in disparate elements that the viewer gets hung up on and can't process properly, like the continuity issues in the Mad Max films that make Max likely 65 years old despite Tom Hardy's obvious age. Or the fact that so many guys have played James Bond over such a long period of time. 

A fan theory is, on some level, about denying the text. If analysis says "Yes, this is the text and then there's also this meaning beneath it," fan theories say "What the text told you was not true. It was something else the entire time." 

The best examples of this are the endlessly prevalent "he was dead all along" theories. There's a popular one that says the ending of Taxi Driver - Travis Bickle hailed as a hero, Betsy getting into his cab - is a death dream, that Travis really died on the floor of that brothel. The problem with the "he was dead/dreaming all along" theory is that it's hard to refute because it in itself is a refutation of everything onscreen. If you're denying the text wholesale, there's no good way to argue with you. It's an overly clever way to approach movies, one that seeks to be superior while really being kind of sophomoric. Worst of all, it tends to rob the movie of all meaning, bringing it down to a cheap gotcha twist ending - and the least satisfying twist possible: "None of this was real." If the end of Taxi Driver is a death dream than Scorsese is saying absolutely nothing about America at all, the movie has no point and you basically just watched two hours of a surface level examination of a psycho. I honestly don't even know what the "it was all a death dream" people think Taxi Driver is even trying to say. 

The thing about fan theories is that they're always shallow - always. They're basically 'wouldn't it be cool' stoned ramblings presented with a sheen of semi-academic rambling. They're always slightly less clever than the dumb guy who says "When you think about it, Jesus was a zombie." In general anybody who starts sentences with "When you think about it" is worth ignoring. Quick - now is the time to comb everything I've written to see if I've started sentences this way.

Fan theories are different from fan fictions. Fan theories seek to 'solve' the narrative by bringing in an outside element to make it in some way either more palatable or more 'mind-blowing' for the theory-spinner. Fan fiction is more about playing with the pieces, rarely about supplanting the reality. There are lines that get crossed - there's a fan theory called Ronbledore that says Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books is actually a time-lost Ron Weasely (yes, it's as abjectly idiotic as it sounds) that gets right up on being fanfic. In general, though, fanfic is about playing in the sandbox, not asking if the sandbox is actually a graveyard and all your characters were dead the whole time. 

A side note: fan theories have existed for a while. They have become more ubiquitous in the modern age - maybe because we have more free time and get eaten by animals less often than we once did - but they've been there from Biblical times. Marvel Comics always had my favorite approach to fan theories - they gave them No Prizes. The basic premise was this: if you found a continuity error in a Marvel comic you could write in and explain it away - it wasn't that Stan Lee and company got it wrong, it's that there were all these reasons why what seemed like a mistake was actually not a mistake. The best answer would get a No Prize. I got a No Prize once: it was an empty envelope. I think that about sums up fan theories, and I've always liked that playful Marvel attitude towards them. 

Second Guessing: Deep reads and fan theories (and fanfic, I suppose) are ways of interacting with narratives, but when I wrote my original piece I didn't even take into account 'second guessing,' despite it being an ages-old way of interacting with narratives. It's changed in recent years as serialized storytelling has become popular and the internet has allowed us to talk about it amongst ourselves on a wider scale. Second guessing is sometimes called 'fan theories,' but I don't think that's the right nomenclature. 

What is second guessing? You know when you're watching a murder mystery with an annoying person and ten minutes in a character is introduced and they turn to you and say, "He did it," even before the murder happens? That's second guessing. 

It's the desire to get ahead of the narrative, one that gets bigger in a serialized storytelling landscape, where we're always looking ahead to the next thing. Donbledore started as a second guessing thing - people honestly thought this was what JK Rowling was building towards in her books - before becoming a fan theory. Every thought you had about the mysteries on Lost before the finale? All second guessing. Whenever anybody tries to figure out Jon Snow's real parentage or who will end up on the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones, they're second guessing. 

This comes up because somoene on Twitter, horrified at my hate for fan theories, asked what I thought about the 'fan theories' that Mad Men would end with that Coke commercial, which started circulating weeks before the finale. My thought is: they were right, and they weren't doing fan theories. They were guessing the ending. 

Second guessing can be super annoying, and it can lead to fan theories and lame headcanon (ie, this narrative didn't go where I wanted it to go, so I now must fix it), but it's really the lifeblood of being a fan of any longform story. You just can't help it, and when it's informed by knowledge of the property and an understanding of the themes and tone of the work, it can be fun. I have seen a couple of people wondering if perhaps Sansa on Game of Thrones won't end up becoming Lady Stoneheart, a character from the books who never showed up on the show. That's a guess based on knowledge of the work, and it's a guess based on an understanding not just of how the story of Game of Thrones works but also how adaptation works. Are they right? We won't know until we know, but that's the sort of speculation that works, because it allows you to engage the story as it is, since you must understand the story as it is to guess where it's going. 

A lot of people have commented that it's lame to judge anyone for how they enjoy 'talking about' movies, and I guess that's fine if you're very casual about movies. We aren't here, and there's no shame in taking this stuff - even the silly stuff, even the pop stuff - fairly seriously. Nothing is too dumb to be smart about. And, judging by the prevalence of fan theories, nothing is too smart to be dumb about.