Secretly Subversive Movies/TV Shows/Video Games

Ever come across a movie, television show, or video game that has a hidden message? And not only is that message hidden, but it’s subversive- it challenges a dominant or popular social view or power structure? Post about it here just remember the two criteria:

Secret: It can’t be a message you’re hit over the head with constantly through the work, it has to be something that’s been obscured through the plot, not highlighted by it. It might be something that emerges explicitly at the end, but then it has to take you by surprise and recolor everything you’ve seen up to that point.

Subversive: The message has to be something that challenges either power, or our popular view of the world. It doesn’t have to be a new message, necessarily, but it does have to be the kind of message that addresses things that aren’t regularly addressed or addressed well in most popular media.


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The best “sleeper” I’ve seen in terms of TV Shows that address issues in a subversive way is something I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by: Malcolm in the Middle. The TL;DR explanation is that it’s really about working class life, and it’s really about how hard it is to get anyone to care about working class and lower middle-class Americans. This is obscured somewhat by the phenomenon where people are more affluent on television than their character backgrounds would indicate. Why is it all apartments in TV series set in NYC seem way too huge? (Side callout to @Donald_Petersen: I wonder what accounts for this lack of verisimilitude. Do you know?) It’s hard to pick up on this being a central theme in the series until you realize in the final episode that Malcolm is being groomed by his parents to be the first truly working-class president of the United States.

A More Detailed Explanation:

If you haven’t seen it, I’m about to describe it, but even if you have it seems really surprising because it’s mostly a slapstick comedy where a lot of the humor comes from the improbable misfortune and selfishness of the main characters. If there’s a rulebook for the humor of the series, it mostly goes, “The more the characters want something, the more they’re going to hilariously fail at getting it.” It’s the same formula applied to Wile E. Coyote and Wet Bandits in the Home Alone series. So it seems deeply unlikely that there’s anything subversive running through a series that is effectively a live-action cartoon.

The series centers around a dysfunctional American working class family with a middle child named Malcolm who is incredibly intellectually gifted. This prodigy gets things like differential calculus taught to him at a special school from an early age, but he’s set apart from his well-to-do, but socially maladjusted peers because he’s been grounded by his upbringing. He’s also set apart from the school he’s a student at, just like all of his gifted peers. His brothers, meanwhile are all mischievous trouble-makers. One was sent away to a military-style boarding school, while the two other left behind get up to incredible hijinks that fuel a lot of the humor in the series.

Here’s the secretly subversive bit: The series is full of conflict, but the struggles of being an American working class family isn’t a major source of it. It does source some of the conflict, especially in the later episodes and seasons, but it’s really a source of background. So you’re not thinking about what it means to have to take on extra shifts at the supermarket, because from the viewer’s perspective, it’s just a reason for the seemingly short-tempered mother not to be at home when her trouble-making kids are, it’s a device designed to product hijinks.

But as the series wears on, you get scenes like one of my absolute favorite scenes in all of television history, where Malcolm gets a job at his mother’s supermarket and had to break down and bale boxes. Malcolm is given a complicated procedure to accomplish a simple task. Being a prodigy, he does it his way, which is faster. This immediately gets him in trouble, and anyone who watched that scene and has ever worked the kind of minimum wage job where pointless procedures have to be followed at all costs immediately felt his pain. And the series is full of these little moments.

Here’s the thing though, you never piece it all together. It never comes into focus, and if you caught a couple of seasons or even most of the episodes, you might not pick up on these themes at all. Unless you watch the final episode. The final episode features a big break for Malcolm. He has a real chance to make serious money that will cover his tuition for university if he chooses to work for a wealthy businessman right out of high school. His parents turn the offer down for him. It seems inexplicable. Malcolm has a free ride to college in exchange for a few years of working for someone who will compensate him well. Now he will have to engage in some heavy work-study to make ends meet, and the viewer is left wondering what the hell just happened. Later in the episode, shenanigans happen, as they tend to in every episode, which leads to a spectacular clusterfuck where a stressed Malcolm confronts his family and demands an explanation. That’s when his whole family tells him it’s because he needs to be president. Not only does he need to be president, he needs to be the first president to truly care about working class Americans, and they didn’t want him to get a free ride or an easy way out, because the only way he would continue to care about his roots is if he refused to become more privileged.

This series predates the common use of the word “privilege” and so it doesn’t use that word at all, but so much of what happens in the series is really bound up in class dynamics. It’s very sneaky and I definitely never saw it coming.


No it doesn’t. This use of the word was popularized by Peggy McIntosh in the 80s, but the concept goes back to W. E. B. du Bois at least.


Common, as in popular use. At least to the extent that you see it everywhere now. I’m aware it’s been used academically and in certain circles for a while, but it didn’t come up in TV shows the way it pops up now.


I think you are overestimating the ubiquity of the term or concept in popular culture today.

Nah, not directly. My best guess would be that there are a combination of contributing factors that are allowed to coexist (in real life they’d be paradoxical) because lighthearted sitcoms exist in a cartoony dream-state of unreality. One factor is that some sitcoms are built around characters who are written to be relatable to their audience demographics. In the case of Friends, or maybe Two Broke Girls, you have twentysomethings reasonably fresh out of college who are working entry-level jobs and having fun with the friends while trying to make ends meet and navigate adulthood for the first time. At the same time, it can be a bit grim to remind audiences of the actual living conditions when it comes to tiny, cramped apartments with too many roommates that are all one can afford on that entry-level paycheck, so some of these shows include a spacious, aspirational living situation that makes more room for various comedic encounters and also gives the audience a comfortable, attractive environment in which they want to spend time with their TV… er, “friends.”

Some shows that are built around working-class characters don’t go too far in the direction of glamming-up their characters’ homes, but even Roseanne and Sanford and Son had sets that seemed a tad extravagant in terms of square footage. But they also weren’t set in NYC.

Here’s the other thing I wanted to comment about, which I guess I’ll spoilerize since it concerns that MITM ending (which I didn’t see):

Man, it’s somewhat annoying that I can’t quote spoilerized text, but anyway: if I were Malcolm I would have been royally pissed at my parents, and may never have forgiven them. I grew up in similar financial straits, and though I wasn’t as gifted as Malcolm, I was identified as gifted and spent part of every school day in my elementary years sequestered in special classes with the other gifted kids. As it turned out, I didn’t go to a fancy college on a full ride; in fact, I went to my local community college and paid for it by delivering pizza because that was all I could afford. But that’s not why I still care about my roots and the underprivileged kids in the trailer park I grew up in. My parents and I both would have leaped at the chance for me to go to a better school, and the whole time I would have been profoundly grateful for the unearned privilege. Since college I have been the beneficiary of all manner of unearned privilege, both in day-to-day walking around and also in my professional life in the entertainment industry, largely because I’m a white male American who’s reasonably smart and with no obvious handicaps. I have no ambition to be president (and would have no talent for it anyway), but if my parents deliberately made attending school unnecessarily harder than it needed to be just to keep me humble, then they would have failed at parenting. Malcolm would remember his upbringing, and the modest means of his own childhood, and if he felt he got that prize of a free ride simply because he deserved it, not thinking how unbelievably fortunate he would have been to receive it, it wouldn’t have been true to his character (I did watch enough of the show to be sure of that). In that sense I felt he was sufficiently like me.


I dunno if it’s secret, but season 2 of The Fall is certainly subversive in that you never ever see a police procedural that [spoiler] calls out the audience for being complicit in the very existence of the show. The show comes right out and says “you’re watching women being murdered for entertainment, that makes you complicit in the way society treats them as disposable.”

Furthermore, there’s a scene where you watch one of the killer’s victims, tied to a chair and being videotaped as she works through anger, terror, bargaining, and everything else to get him to let her go. Whereupon the murderer walks in front of the camera and says, directly into the lens, “Why are you watching this, you sick fuck?” I thought it was pretty ballsy to watch a show call out its own audience like that. [/spoiler]


Perhaps, but MTV is throwing it out left and right to the younger folk (when it’s not making asinine reality shows), and anything written by Shonda Rhimes is going to use the word a few times. I can’t say for certain it’s showing up in movies because I can’t recall a specific instance, but I think it’s starting to penetrate pop culture.

I don’t have real data for this, because Google Trends doesn’t quantify “interest” meaningfully, but since 2004 it has been rising pretty steadily in US search queries. The current peak is Jan 2016, which I suspect is related to BLM. This isn’t definitive of anything, but it does match my anecdotal experience. I’m not unwary of using my personal experience as a gauge of the wider world, but it would come as a real shock to me if people aren’t throwing out “privilege” as a concept a lot more lately.


I think part of it is simply that it is vastly easier in many different ways to film in larger spaces. You don’t want every Sitcom to turn into Das Boot: NYC.

For me the finale of Malcolm in the Middle, one of my favorite shows in general, represented a serious culture shock for reasons that may be a bit different to explain.


Oh, but please do, if and when you have time. I doubt I’m the only one who’s interested.


In Civilization 4, the tech prerequisite for the “Mount Rushmore” national wonder project is ‘fascism’.

This is presented with absolutely no further comment; but always struck me as less than entirely complimentary.


One more that I just remembered. If you watch The White Helmets, a Netflix documentary, there is a lot there that is clearly designed for western audiences. The translations for a lot of things are not literal, and the subtitles aim for cultural interpretation rather than translation. The effect is deeply humanizing, which is what the filmmakers are sort of secretly going for. The movie isn’t about a group of rescue workers (the titular White Helmets pull people out of rubble and give aid to bombing victims). The movie is very carefully and systematically trying to get you to empathize with Syrians as human beings who suffer. In order to do this, they have to push aside certain cultural differences that might otherwise alarm English speakers.

One thing they do is to insert “white helmets” into almost all subtitles where someone is saying “civil defense.” This is a stylistic move to connect the movie with its title, but it’s just a synonym game. The other thing they do is replace instances where a direct translation might be “martyr” and substitute “victim.” This is wholly appropriate. In Arabic cultures, it’s very common even in mainstream news reporting to refer to civilians killed by bombings or in violence as “martyrs” but to westerners this carries the implication that the people killed were engaged in hostilities. There are a lot of little touches like that, where instead of having to take a detour to explain certain cultural differences, or worse still, leave them unexplained, the filmmakers took another route and just did a honest cultural interpretation as part of the translation. But few people are going to pick up on how hard the filmmakers are working to make Syrians into human beings across a cultural divide.

Actually the main weakness of the film comes from the fact that they didn’t get enough footage and it lags in the third act when they go to Turkey to film training. After one of the filmmakers gets ragdolled against a wall in a bombing (he lives and dusts himself off) you get the distinct impression that they decided it wasn’t worth the risk to stay in Syria.


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