I suppose we all have our burdens, right?
I would be willing to suggest that one of the burdens of being an English major (besides having to come up with creative answers to the inevitable “What are you going to do with that major?” questions) is that those of us who have been drilled in hardcore textual analysis often lose the ability to lose ourselves in mindless entertainment. Nope. We are too busy reading the subtext of whatever media we’re consuming.
(For a really humorous example of reading subtext, check out one English major’s take on James Comey’s resignation letter here.)
Merriam-Webster online defines subtext as “the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text).”
Naturally, a movie or television show can also have a subtext. There’s the main story, and then there’s all the other stuff going on under the surface. Take the BBC’s Luther. Great show! What a performance from Idris Elba, right?? Such interesting characters! Look at these relationships forming, and breaking, and reforming, and rebreaking. (And on, and on.) But wait. What if we dig a little deeper? There’s…something else here. Oh my god, yes, WTF IS THIS SHOW’S PROBLEM WITH MENTAL ILLNESS??!! In the Luther universe, having a mental illness seems to mean that you are going to murder a lot of people in interesting, gruesome, and I dare say innovative ways.
Or take the subtext of almost every cop show ever: Your damned civil liberties are preventing us cops from doing our job! The fact is, in our show, episode after countless episode, it is our disregard for your pesky civil liberties that ultimately allows us to snag the (truly) guilty party. So stop complaining!
But I digress. Because really, there is a Beowulf tie-in here.
Here it is: I watched The 13th Warrior. The thing is, I watched it again. The embarrassing fact is I’ve seen this movie many times, and I am always left feeling somewhat entertained. That being said, part of the entertainment factor, for me, is imagining what Michael Crichton & Co.—Michael Crichton wrote The Eaters of the Dead, which the movie is based on and had a big role in the film’s production, even taking over directorial duties at one point—were ever thinking in their ever living minds. Like, did they think their gross, misogynistic subtext would go unnoticed?? Because it didn’t. I am on the case.
Let me lay this out for you, reader.
The 13th Warrior has a few things going for it. In a nice twist on the white savior film, an Arab man goes north and plays a pretty big role in saving Hrothgar’s kingdom from the evil that plagues it. Antonio Banderas (okay, not an Arab, a Spaniard) plays a version of Ahmed Ibn Fadlan (a real life diplomat and chronicler who met up with some Vikings in the tenth century and wrote about both their hygiene practices and gruesome funeral rites), and this 13th Warrior Ibn Fadlan brings his wits along. In fact, it’s this character’s smarts that save the day, in the end. In The 13th Warrior, Ibn Fadlan is constantly figuring things out first, things that save other people’s lives. So, the Northmen may have one up on him in terms of pure brawn, but Ibn Fadlan is the one who actually gets shit done.
Also, Beowulf. And the Wealhtheow character is pretty fierce.
Buuuuuut…the movie kind of goes full-throttle misogyny after that.
So. Hrothgar’s kingdom is under attack. There are these somewhat mythical life forms who come and kill people and gnaw on their dead bodies. Get it? They are cannibals. Gross! Well, it turns out, their whole society is organized around some sort of worship and/or adoration of a female figure. How do we know this? I will tell you. The Northmen are checking out the aftermath of one of these grisly murder scenes. The cannibalism is established. Again, yuck. But just who are these folks who are doing these awful things?? Ibn Fadlan finds an important clue. This is where it all begins to go wrong for me.
Turns out that one of the people-eating marauders has inadvertently left something behind. What might that be, you are probably asking. Okay. It is a figurine that happens to look just like the Venus of Willendorf figurine (except maybe without the head, it’s hard to see…also the figurine in the movie appears to be made of darker stone). But it’s basically the same shape. You know. The roundedness. The breasts. Okay, I am thinking by now. Sweet Jesus, I am also thinking. Because because. But no, my eyes are not deceiving me. The film is really doing this. They are going there.
Yada yada yada. A lot happens. Turns out the people-eaters are just normal human men who live in a big cave under the earth. (EARTH!! My god, the femininity of this. The subtext continues its subtextual horror show. And yes, I know, Beowulf went down into the mere. Still. This is all really too much.) The Northmen, and Ibn Fadlan, go in those caves, and find, among other things, a HUGE version of the female figurine, as well as a murderous high priestess or something who leads the cannibalistic mother-worshiping evil-doers all in their people-eating perversion and must be killed!! Also, just in case I, the hapless viewer, am somehow unaware that this character is BAD and EVIL, she is wearing a snake. I guess snakes are bad. I guess because Eve, in our Western imagination. But have no fear, the Beowulf character does indeed dispatch her. But not without being scratched with poison first, which will ultimately lead to his death. (Poison. Such a woman’s way to murder.) In the end, the über-male Northmen, along with Ibn Fadlan, save the day, although not without losing some comrades.
Okay. Maybe you are like, calm down, Jenny Drai. Because you are all like, in the original Beowulf, our hero goes and fights Grendel’s dam, and she’s female. So there’s some basis for this in the poem. Why do you have to read so much into everything?
Aaaaaaaargh because I was an English major, I would respond. Again, with those super heavy burdens making my life super-difficult.
Besides, I wouldn’t say that the dam is the brains behind the operation in the poem, whereas this mother-type figure in The 13th Warrior really is. In fact, as Jane Chance points out in Woman as Hero in Anglo-Saxon Literature, Grendel’s dam is portrayed as weaker and more cowardly than Grendel. Her real monstrousness, to an Anglo-Saxon audience, may have also had a lot to do with her usurpation of traditionally masculine roles. (Again, I’m getting this from Jane Chance.) Instead of keeping the peace, Grendel’s mother runs off and avenges her son’s death. Tsk. Tsk.
Okay. So, basically, my eyes are burning holes into my head the whole time I am watching this movie, but I am also really having a good chuckle. Again, this weird subtext is all too much. Like, it is not really a subtext, is it? On the other hand, maybe subtlety would be more dangerous.