Using Subtlety to Teach

In regards to activism or any situation regarding the spread of information and ideals, it often feels like we’re preaching to the choir. It feels like everyone listening to our message already agrees with it. The question then becomes: how can we get this message to people who don’t care or aren’t aware? One solution may be subtlety!

This is a concept I’ve been intrigued by for a while. I think this is what edutainment (the mix of education and entertainment) shows and games are aiming for—trying to have children learn through play. It’s not a perfect execution, though, as children are often savvy enough to know when someone is trying to teach them something. Well, usually. This is where subtlety comes in. Easing learning into an otherwise fun situation is a tricky move, but will reduce resistance from the participant and make it easier for them to come to the idea themselves. I want to cite a few examples to prove this point.

captain planeteers

As a baseline, I think it is important to explain the opposite. The show Captain Planet is often as remembered a heavy-handed show with an obvious message: don’t pollute and respect the planet. Five multicultural kids had various elemental rings that, when used together, could summon Captain Planet, a superhero manifestation of the Earth’s powers. It was a simple idea. Every aspect of the show related to the lesson of the week. However, this show was well liked because of its well-intentioned messages. The problem with obvious programming is that if someone is already against the contained message, they may not change their mind.

Contrast Captain Planet with an older Sonic game, Sonic CD. In this game, the villain wanted to use time travel to take over a mystical planet, and it was the players’ job to stop him. The player could access four different timezones: the past, which was natural and archaic; the present, which was typical video game scenery; the bad future, in which machinery and pollution had taken over the landscape; and finally the good future, in which harmony had been created between machines and nature. While this delivered a similar message to care about the environment, the narrative doesn’t beat viewers over the head with it.

Bleak, pollution run rampant vs. lush harmony between nature and machin

Bleak pollution run rampant vs. lush harmony between nature and machine

So why does this matter? I’ve often seen the question online: “How can we get more people to understand the ideals of feminism?” I think easing more obstinate opponents into these ideals using subtlety would yield better results. Personally, I’ve been a fan of the Powerpuff Girls since the first short came out, even though I’m a guy and it was a “girly” show. But as a little kid, I saw three girls beating up bad guys. Beating up bad guys has never been a “boy thing”, despite what many studio executives may believe. Powerpuff Girls had a fairly large male audience, and this isn’t just my opinion. A teachable demographic already exists.

It starts with the obvious concept that the girls are able to defeat most of their enemies in the same way that any hero would. But this isn’t the main reason to celebrate the show. Their dad, the Professor, took care of responsibilities that were normally coded as motherly/feminine, such as cooking, cleaning, and bedtime stories. Meanwhile, the girls would do chores that often needed great speed or strength. This tiny nuance showed children that gender roles in the household were essentially meaningless.

A family must show mutual care

A family must show mutual care.

Steven Universe also has a good lesson in that it shows that boys can have female role models. In my opinion, this is an important concept. Extending from the idea of the Powerpuff Girls emphasizing that girls can be just as strong and entertaining as boys, Steven Universe teaches that women can maintain this strength through maturity and serve as role models. The show doesn’t beat the viewers over their collective heads with this idea, though; the idea is just kind of present. We aren’t told that young boys should look up to older women, it’s just a possibility that can happen and the show doesn’t portray this as a bad thing. Steven looks up to the Crystal Gems and greatly respects them. To be successful, he must work with them and follow their lead. Competency doesn’t ever seem to be linked to gender—all strengths and weaknesses are character based. Steven makes mistakes because he’s young and inexperienced, but it’s this youth that gives him optimism and energy. Pearl overanalyzes situations and misses easy solutions, but this attention to detail prevents worse outcomes. These traits are just who they are.

Steven seems to be mostly a narrative character, though, while the Crystal Gems seem to be the most interesting part of the show for many fans. A quick search for fanart can show you where the fans’ hearts lie. This may be because each Gem is a well-rounded, well-developed character with different character traits, and each serve a different purpose in the plot. We’ve seen the playfully clumsy but well-meaning young boy archetype before. The tropes that the Gems fulfill are a little more varied and unique. This is not to say that Steven is not well-written, but he’s a viewpoint character through which we learn about the world of Steven Universe.

But being shocked is universal.

This is a subtle, yet brilliant way to teach people a point. If we can relate to Steven quickly, we are more likely to look up to who he looks up to and respect who he respects. His lack of fully developed powers adds to this. He may bumble around and not be able to use an ability right away, but this is a great time for him to seek help from one of the Gems. When he doesn’t, the audience then begins to cheer him on to do just that. Subconsciously we’re thinking, “he needs the Gems”. At the same time, the Gems don’t come off too much like Satellite Characters (characters that only exist to enhance another character’s narrative). When any of the Crystal Gems aren’t interacting with Steven, they often appear to be doing other important things. He isn’t their only priority, which adds to their agency. This is also an example of a boy looking to a woman for help, which we almost never see in media. We see girls looking to men for help all the time, such as with the typical damsel in distress trope.

Finn and Jake from Adventure Time are our viewpoint characters as well. In the later seasons, they aren’t the most interesting citizens in the universe anymore, but they do provide a familiar link and gateway to other interesting aspects to the world. Adventure Time approaches subtlety in a slightly different way than the previous examples. While a specific episode/message in the show won’t be subtle—Finn’s entire relationship with Flame Princess is very obviously a lesson about coming to terms with feelings and being honest—the show itself is subtle in its message. At this point in the series, the show is equal parts adventure, relationships, social mores, and self-referential mythology. But when the social mores, such as “be cool to your friends”, are introduced, Adventure Time doesn’t suddenly become a “learning show” or have a “Very Special Episode”. This way, a situation like with Finn and Flame Princess presents its point, and yet the show isn’t classified as a romantic drama.

finn flame princess king

Sometimes you don’t get a second chance.

Overall, these examples show that audiences don’t need to be talked down to in order to understand “higher” concepts. Pulling a viewer into a familiar setting, but then tweaking the setting to suit a message is a fantastic way to spread ideas. Additionally, unless specifically viewing academic material, viewers dislike being lectured to. This is why subtlety, in any capacity, can be a positive force.

5 thoughts on “Using Subtlety to Teach

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