Theme, Empire and Barbie

A thought about the theme in stories (part 2)


I’m on vacation. Look.

That’s me this morning (this entry was written the 3rd of August, 2023). In Galicia, Spain. The babe next to me is, I choose to believe, some type of Celtic deity. I am fascinated with her, so I did some research on the Internet, but couldn’t find out who she represents. So I’m sorry I can’t say anything smart about the picture, other than… I’m on vacation! 🙂

Anyway, I bet you don’t (only!) read these lines to check out what your favorite author is doing. You of course want me to tell you something about Barbie, the latest pop cultural phenomenon. And I will – with no spoilers at all, I promise – but to get there I first must finish what I started last month, when I began writing about “the theme,” that current under the surface that really makes stories click. It’s a topic I’m naturally obsessed with, since I make it my job to write stories, but I will use these lines to try to bring its essence up to the surface, to understand it better. I confess that by talking to you about the theme, it’s ultimately me I’m talking to.

[CLICK HERE] to take a look at last month’s intro. If you’re as lazy as me, though, then you’ll probably skip it, so here is the summary. Thesis: theme is propaganda. The author’s propaganda, her hidden agenda to manipulate you into accepting her value system. Corollary: you enjoy stories only when you swallow its propaganda with gusto. That’s more or less the gist.

Today I want to delve deeper into the murky waters of theme. Because in my (not so humble) opinion, its importance is crucial to understanding us, humans. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “How can something that I’ve never heard about be so important?”

Bear with me, please. This is going to get sciency.

Picture two prehistoric tribes: the Smiths and the Goburs. The Smiths have shamans not unlike those I portrayed in last month’s newsletter (you haven’t read it yet, huh? Come on, dude, aren’t you even a little bit  intrigued by now? [Here again the link]), while the Goburs don’t know religion or have much spiritual/symbolic curiosity. The Smith children are raised with wondrous stories of gods and heroes told every evening around the fireplace that illustrate (i.e. theme) the value of generosity, bravery, sacrifice and other crucial cultural values. And they are insatiably curious about their past and their future, always asking for more. The Goburs, on the other hand, raise their children with ruthless pragmatism: you do this to eat, or else you die. Their stories, the few they have, are just gossip or superficial entertainment with no substance (i.e. no theme).

Now picture the Smiths competing against the Goburs for scarce resources in some beautifully pristine African valley. Forward a few generations. Now, you must make a bet. One of them is going extinct, while the other thrives to extend its culture beyond the Valley. Which tribe do you bet on? The Goburs? Have you ever met a Gobur?


Okay, so I just demonstrated (Yeah, I’m using the term very liberally) that thematic stories are not just something we seek when we are bored, but that they are something fundamentally human, embedded in our very selves. There are no cultures on Earth nowadays without an ingrained love for stories. Those without it went the way of the Goburs.

But there’s more to theme than just being human. There is the concept of culture with which I have already begun touching – or even empire.

Look, I was born in Western Europe in the seventies. The stories I grew up with are the same stories a child my age in the US or Norway or Greece grew up with. The same themes. The Cold War, Star Wars, all the shebang. I am Westerner, my values are Western, because Western stories are all I’ve been feeding with my entire life. Stories with Western themes (i.e. propaganda). I know who the baddies are (dictatorships and tyrannies). I’ve learned the value of effort, competition, freedom, our inalienable rights, the drive for success (the ‘pursuit of happiness’, as the US founding fathers framed it). There are regional variations, of course. In my native Spain, for example, stories tend to emphasize the value of family perhaps more than in American or, say, German stories, where personal effort tends to be more strongly rewarded. The evil of corruption is, naturally, a more pervasive theme in countries with a corruption problem, injustice in countries with a justice problem, etc.

What about Eastern Europe? Well, I’m not an expert, but I’ve had some dealings in Poland which I’m going to grossly use as a proxy of the former-Soviet influence space. Stories are sooo depressing there. I mean, it’s like every film is Bambi with a tragic ending. The themes are defeatism, a sense of honor and self-respect in the face of inevitable doom in a dystopian world impossible to overcome.

I hate those stories. Why? Because I don’t buy their propaganda, I want my propaganda. I want stories where the baddies get what they deserve (theme: justice prevails), where the hero saves the day, or the world (theme: every problem, no matter how large, can be overcome). Sorry if I’m unjustly generalizing from my very limited personal experience. Please take all this as just an illustrative example. And I suppose new Eastern European generations (at least inside the EU) are now getting their spoons full of the same stories everywhere else in the West.

What about Eastern Asia? We’ve all seen their movies on Netflix (those awesome Korean and Japanese series filled with action and magic – I find them fascinating). Next time you watch one, try to look beneath the plot, and seek the theme, and I bet you will see lots of sacrifice for the common good. And when I mean a lot, it’s a lot. Like every secondary character is literally dying to die a heroic death to save the others. For an extreme example, take any epic Chinese movie. My beloved Jackie Chan excepted. Oh, and notice how they are constantly scolding each other for undue behavior (theme: conformity to society)? Again, I know I’m oversimplifying. Sorry. I would love to talk about the rest of the world, but sadly, I have no exposure whatsoever.

Ok, Isaac, so what’s the “theme” got to do with “empire”? And with Barbie?

Stories – themes – link people together in increasingly larger circles of culture: from families, cities, countries, all the way to the largest scale: empires.

The United States has flooded its area of influence with such a barrage of stories for so many decades that, except because I’m not allowed to vote there, I almost feel American. Many of the values I consider dear have been passed through to me from my family after watching American shows (my grandfather loved the original Star Trek!), and of course I’ve watched and read more American stories than the rest of the world combined. And it’s not just the US. India has its own empire, almost as large. And Japan and Korea are not far behind, as my Netflix taste attests. Those are empires that no country – no matter how powerful – can ever build by military means, let alone hold for long. Ask Putin. Or Xi. They’re trying. They call it soft power. Good luck.

You still don’t believe in the awesome power of the theme? Well, Putin and Xi certainly do, judging by the intensity of their state-censorship, to the point of establishing police states just to control the narrative. Control the narrative, that’s rule number one in the manual of the perfect tyrant.

You still don’t believe me? What about the theme of misogyny embedded in so many of our religious texts and creation myths? Adam and Eve, Pandora, Sita, the list goes on. Those themes are so powerful – so ingrained in our culture – that it is taking humanity thousands of years to fucking shed them. And, sadly, they are still going strong. Do your part. Take your children to watch Barbie and expose them to a less rancid theme (There! That’s all I gotta say about Barbie without spoiling it).

Oof. I’m exhausted. That came out way longer than I planned. That’s what happens when you’re well-slept and have too much time on your hands. Which is what I also wish for you this summer. 🙂

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