You are all aware that there are different levels of context, aren’t you?
I’ll admit that its been a few years since school, and I don’t quite remember the curriculum but I know we did talk about context. I remember there were different kinds of context.
I remember context within a sentence, where you could deduce the definition of a word from the surrounding words. And I remember context for a sentence, where you needed the entire paragraph to understand that “It was SO big” did not necessarily mean something dirty.
There’s immediate context within a story that explains weird behaviors, such as why Sherlock Holmes never got evicted for regularly firing a gun inside a rented apartment or why Adora didn’t know she was on the bad guy’s side when they first introduced She-Ra.
I know we’re all aware of metatext, which goes from an inside joke to the fans to little easter eggs in the background to deeply symbolic epics.
And of course, there’s the behind the scenes context for all fiction. We all know that Supergirl’s costume is that way because that’s what Mike Turner thought a 16-year-old girl would wear, no matter what explanation is offered up by a writer or editor.
There’s different levels of context in real-life. There’s the immediate context of a small group of friends who might call each other an offensive slur while joking around. There’s immediate context of people in a relationship with each other who are comfortable walking around barely clothed in the privacy of their shared home.
And above that, there’s societal context. There’s the backstory for everything that happens.
There’s what would happen if the aforementioned group of friends were approached by a stranger who called one of them the same slur. It could still be a word used to joke around with other people who understand you and have experienced the same sorts of things you have, so long as you have a way of knowing this stranger understands your situation. Or it could be an insult from an outsider who has no way of understanding you.
There’s what happens when one half of the couple who are comfortable with each other suddenly decide they’re comfortable with being naked all the time, and that it would be a great idea to walk down the city street and tell everyone else what a great thing being naked is. What sort of reaction does that person face? Does it depend on the city? On the race or gender of the person and the people being approached? Something’s that’s wonderful in a small intimate setting can be disasterous when taken to the larger world without thought for the context of that larger world.
Which brings me back to fiction, actually. There’s a larger world out there. Larger than just one imaginary issue of Red Sonja. Larger than just one fictional universe.
Stories don’t occur in a vacuum. I say this all the time. I say it so much it’s become cliche. I say it so much I’ve forgotten who originally said it.
But it’s the truth. They all happen in context, and not just one context. They happen on the immediate level of the plot, they happen against the backdrop of the series, of the creator’s intentions, of the genre traditions, of the society we live in.
We all know why Red Sonja wears a chainmail bikini, don’t we? It’s because she likes to distract her opponents in battle. Or because some artist thought a gorgeous redhead in a chainmail bikini would look awesome. Or because the editors want to keep her signature look. Or because the sword and sorcery genre allows for such stylistic silliness. Or because genre traditions dictate that a female warrior look sexually attractive. Or because the business finds that sex sells. Or because the business finds that female bodies sell.
Or because our society finds that aggression and strength is undesirable in a woman, and so to balance that out aggressive female women are portrayed as physically desirable in every possible way.
That’s a whole lot of context right there.