Holly Buchanan at MarketingToWomenOnline once again makes a salient point that I can use to make a related salient point. She talks about – yep – a holiday diamond commercial that actually worked for her. In it, a man puts a diamond pendant necklace on his sleeping wife. But why did she like it? Why, more precisely, did she find herself liking the man? It finally hit her: at the start of the commercial, he shuts the window. It’s cold – his wife must be cold – he does something about it. This establishes who he is. He’s not just Rich Guy With Trophy Wife He Likes To Adorn Expensively. Nor does he seem to be a husband with a guilty conscience who thinks a showy gift will make all well. He’s a guy who cares if his wife is comfortable while she sleeps – while she’s doing nothing for him.
Holly refers to this as “character development”, based on a standard screenwriting rule that film students learn very early on: as soon as you introduce a character, give her some little action to perform that reveals something about the sort of person she is. In the commercial, it’s an act of thoughtfulness – which suggests that the jewelry company is recommending diamonds as a gift for someone you love, rather than a replacement for love (as other diamond commercials struck SBG and some of the rest of us).
But where do I want to take this point? Little character actions like that are one form of sending a meta-message. It’s an unspoken indication of a character’s values. In writing my post yesterday about critiquing feminist criticisms of pop culture, it occurred to me that perhaps I didn’t spend enough time on assertions that we analysts are reading “too much” into things; that the writers didn’t mean it to come across that way; that we’re looking for things to complain about. Meta-messages do exist; they’re taught in screenwriting school to help writers put across their artistic visions. But then they’re twisted into a way for studios to put across their values, or the values they believe the audience embraces, or the values certain powers in the world have asked them to promote.
Film and TV send meta-messages and they know it. It is not only acceptable but necessary for critics of pop culture to include these messages in our analysis.