Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Characters in modern media don’t talk like people

Popular media is prone to hand-holding its audience
Judith Gibson-Okunieff

Increasingly in popular media, characters always seem to have the words to explain exactly what they are feeling. For example, in the movie “Barbie,” when the titular doll and Ken first arrive in the “real world,” both are instantly able to describe the intricacies of patriarchy and how it makes them feel. In our world, finding the words to describe how we feel is a complicated — and rarely straightforward — process. How is it that Barbie and Ken are able to so quickly identify the themes of their own movie?

“Barbie” is not the only movie guilty of this sort of thematic handholding, and it does not do any favors to any of the stories they’re found in. It feels as though creators do not think that their audience is capable of analyzing the media on their own, and need to have the purpose of the story spelled out for them. This takes away from the overall experience of engaging with the art. “Barbie” is a no doubt a successful film, but at several parts I found myself asking, “If you were just going to come out and say it outright, what’s the point of watching this movie?”

People don’t talk this succinctly in real life. One writer has even given this phenomenon the name of “cinematic therapyspeak,” where characters speak as though they are in therapy, not as though they are reacting accordingly to the situation they are in.

Art isn’t created simply for escapism; it’s also a way for us to explore our own humanity. We must express our feelings and experiences in ways other than the most obvious. Analogies and metaphors, even if they can be annoying in English class, exist for a reason. Art is closely intertwined with human history, arguably because there are some things that just can’t be expressed in a straightforward manner. As author Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”

If we were able to explain the intricacies of our entire human experiences in a few words, then there would be no reason to create art about those experiences. And so we write stories, whether they be books, movies or oral tradition.

Characters outright saying the themes of their media is also an example of the creators being afraid of sincerity. How many times have you been watching a crucial emotional moment in a movie, only for it to be immediately undercut by a quippy one-liner?

For example, in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the eponymous evil robot muses, “I’m glad you asked that, because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan.”

It almost feels like the creator is backing out of having an emotional moment at the last second, prioritizing self-deprecation over emotional resonance. Breaking the fourth wall can be a funny tool, I admit, but it also takes away from the impact of the story. The creators attempt to be self-aware, but it generally makes any attempt to say anything in the story surface-level.

This style of deflating humor can be effective, but recently, especially in popular movies, it has been very overused. A lot of the human experience can only be expressed indirectly through art. Saying the themes or emotions of a piece of media outright, whether it be through a funny quip or “therapyspeak,” removes the power of the media’s themes, rendering any emotional impact to something disappointingly shallow.

Grace Jungmann can be reached at [email protected]

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