Alternate Aesop Interpretation

Bashir: But the point [of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"] is, if you lie all the time, nobody's going to believe you, even when you're telling the truth.
Garak: Are you sure that's the point, doctor?
Bashir: Of course; what else could it be?
Garak: That you should never tell the same lie twice.

A Sister Trope to Alternate Character Interpretation, this refers to when the entire moral message of a story is subject to a strong kind of Fridge Logic. As in, while the characters may interpret the Aesop a certain specific way and the writer has also intended for the audience to see it as such, the audience may end up scratching their heads and noting that if the characters had followed a different course of action, they could have avoided most of the complications of the story just as easily.

Can often result from an Idiot Plot. Sometimes leads to Unfortunate Implications. For the weasel-worded, Accentuate the Negative troper version, see Warp That Aesop. An in-universe version can be a Spoof Aesop. If an Aesop's overt message is subverted by the story, it's a Broken Aesop, which some (but not all) of the examples below may be.

Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Episode 11 of Cowboy Bebop, "Toys in the Attic," an Alternative Aesop was acknowledged after Jet lost his money (and clothes) in a card game with Faye. The Aesop he learns from it is that people can achieve something only by honesty and hard work. Faye, however, sees it as a proof for her Family-Unfriendly Aesop, that Humans Are Bastards and only the smartest and strongest can survive.
    • Throughout the episode, each character offers their own potential moral for the situation. By far the most sensible is Spike's take: "Don't leave things in the fridge."
    • Another interpretation of Jet's situation at the beginning might be, "Don't gamble against someone who you know cheats."
  • The Pain Invasion arc of Naruto. Was it supposed to be about The Power of Friendship, or, rather, "Pride goeth before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction"?
    • Masashi Kishimoto, Naruto's author, explained in an interview with Viz Media's Shonen Jump that the overall message of the series is that using violence to stop conflicts is wrong and that revenge only causes greater revenge. While violence is portrayed in a less than totally glamorous manner in Naruto, and villains commonly use peace as an excuse for their plans, it does seem to go against the impulsive, always-eager-to-fight nature of its protagonist. Given how the outlandish superpowers and elaborate fight sequences are a big part of the draw, it also smacks of Do Not Do This Cool Thing.
  • The moral of the Gundam franchise is supposedly War Is Hell but viewers have often wondered if the real moral is "Causing a war is bad, yes. But fighting a war defensively and against those who caused it, can be flat out heroic."
  • In Bakuman。, the main characters read "Classroom of Truth," which deconstructs various shonen tropes by, among other things, suggesting everyone is only looking out for themselves. However, they notice that the selfish characters died first, and wonder if it, in a way, promotes cooperation.

     Comic Books 
  • Tricked is a graphic novel in which we find out at the end of the story that the moral the surviving characters took from the plot was "guns are bad". But, the access Steve had to his deceased grandfather's guns was just dumb luck. Steve himself didn't know whether his grandmother had gotten rid of the guns until he was already there. By contrast, Steve's mental illness and erratic behavior was observed and commented upon by several characters in the story, but they all decide it's not their issue and let Steve go on his merry way. In terms of preventing the situation that makes up the climax of the book, better mental health awareness probably would have been a lot more help than gun control advocacy.
  • In Usagi Yojimbo, Usagi's master tells a young Usagi the story of the Honest Axe, and asks him to interpret the moral. Since the villager received the gold axe, young Usagi proclaims the answer to be "honesty will be rewarded". His master points out that a gold axe is useless in cutting wood, and the villager died the next winter. The actual lesson is "beware the gifts of those who bear you a grudge".

    Fairytales 
  • The intended message of Beauty and the Beast is to look past appearances and judge someone for who they are on the inside...However, a less romantic version is "Abduction Is Love and kidnapping is romantic!"
    • Another popular darkening of the story is, "It doesn't matter what you look like, beauty is only skin deep...Unless you're the girl."
    • Except that even in the original version, Beauty went to the castle herself and chose to stay to save her father's life. She wasn't kidnapped in the usual sense of the word, at any rate, though the choice she made wasn't between very good options. And she realizes she loves Beast (who was actually always nice to her; Disney did some of their own Deconstruction by giving him a beastly personality) after he lets her leave and gets ill while she's away. The original intended message was an allegory for making an Arranged Marriage work, but as the story outlived the actual practice, "looks don't matter" was tacked on instead.

    Films — Animated 
  • The obvious moral of Kung Fu Panda is to always Be Yourself. However, the story conveys this moral by having Po understand the meaning of the Dragon Scroll when Tai Lung couldn't: The secret to limitless power is within oneself; the scroll isn't blank, it's reflective. Tai Lung's entire life is rendered pointless because even if he'd been given the scroll, there was nothing in it for him to abuse, and when he loses to Po, it's not because Po is a better combatant, it's because Po is an Instant Expert who is naturally immune to his best attacks and learned an instant-death attack after seeing it performed once. Add this to the Arc Words "there are no accidents", and it boils down to Hard Work Hardly Works. Fate is what determines your success, not your own effort.
  • The Lion King has a famously broken moral: don't run from the pain of your past, face it and grow, except Simba's tragic past never happened, it was all a lie. Until he clears his name, no one stands with him, not even his mother or his childhood friend-turned-lover, who specifically convinced him to return because Pride Rock needed him to return and take his rightful place as king. Compare this to when he first runs off: he meets Timon and Pumbaa and lives a happy (if bug-eating) life in a lush green paradise, utterly free of judgment and blame for something he didn't even do. Given that, the moral seems more like, "Once people think you did something wrong, nobody will forgive you unless you can prove someone else is at fault, so you might as well run away and start a new life somewhere else."
  • Disney's Mulan has a rather remarkable one. The titular protagonist is obviously intended as an example for girls to follow, and the rather blatantly feminist lesson is not to let your society's expectations (in this case, concerning femininity) prevent you from doing what you do best and keep you from doing what's right. Intentionally or otherwise, however, another lesson it teaches is "Don't knock patriarchal society until you've walked a few miles in its shoes." Something Mulan gets to experience from being on the front lines in a war is what kind of horrors the men are facing in hopes that their women won't have to. Also, while the villainous Shan Yu holds what many feminists would consider an enlightened view of women (the Huns and Xiongnu and other peoples of the steppes having no prohibitions against the women fighting alongside their men), all this means in practice is that he has no sense of chivalry and no qualms whatsoever about slaughtering the women and children along with the men (as Mulan learns from the Empathy Doll he left behind in a village his men burned to the ground). Values Dissonance doesn't occur in a vacuum, after all; back before technology rendered superior physical strength and endurance less vital to victory in battle, even military forces that did permit the women to fight alongside men were majority male, and not every girl can grow up to be an Action Girl Guile Hero the way Mulan did.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • What eventually became Act of Valor was always intended to be a recruitment video for the U.S. Navy SEALS. And yet with an outcome of roughly half the team becoming casualties in the film's 1- to 6-week span, including one guy losing his eye, one guy getting shot repeatedly and sustaining major injuries, and one guy dying and leaving behind a widow expecting a child, the long version of the moral seems to pretty clearly be, "These guys are heroes because they get horrible outcomes on a regular basis." Which is arguably pretty good for only attracting the most committed for the SEALS, but might ultimately be counter-productive for Navy recruitment as a whole.
  • The Breakfast Club. The common interpretation is that the titular teens could overcome their differences by finding common ground and appreciating the uniqueness of each of their characters. The more cynical interpretation is that the characters didn't actually learn anything: At the end of the movie, their narrative function is pretty much what you'd expect from their character types. The girl with rich parents hooks up with the bad boy, the jock gets with the loner after she gets a makeover, and the nerd is the only one who puts any actual work into the assignment.
    • Made even worse by the fact that the message of the loner and the jock's hookup is basically "Boys will like you as long as you dress how they want."
      • That said, scenes before her makeover indicated that he clearly liked her, he just didn't know how to approach her. Notice his reaction to her makeover is, "I like it. You can see your face."
    • It's also easy to take away the message, 'It's ok for people from different cliques and walks of life to get along, as long as no-one else knows, and the popular members of the gang will most likely ignore everyone else again the next day, as though nothing happened.'
  • A common interpretation of Woman Of The Year (1942) can be summed up as "Tess is punished for being a strong woman, and is made to eat Humble Pie at the end so that Sam can 'win' the Battle Of The Sexes." However, a more positive reading is that Tess learns that marriage requires time and attention—more than she has been willing so far to take away from her work—and her Epic Fail attempt to become purely domestic merely shows that she hasn't immediately found the proper balance (which Sam encourages her to find).

     Literature 
  • In The Commitment by Dan Savage, one chapter mentions a sexually inexperienced wife who divorces her husband, concluding that some non-monogamy could have saved their relationship. This assumption is based off of the intense interest she takes in Dan and Terry's sex life. But, as she considers "sexual adventures she regretted" to be a good thing, and assumes that Dan and Terry are depraved homosexuals because they're gay, we could just as easily conclude that her sexual inexperience is leading her to over-romanticize sexcapades — recall Savage's earlier befuddlement at how "stupid mistakes you survive become points of pride". That's assuming that their marriage wasn't suffering other problems, which seems likely. The wife says, "I would love to have a three-way. But I wouldn't want my husband to know the details." When her husband laughs, Savage takes this as an example of how marriage can be prudish, but note that the wife's statement about Three-Way Sex implies that she would be having sex with two strangers. Dan and Terry, by contrast, had two episodes of three-way sex, which were them with a third man whom they had both gotten to know personally.
  • The obvious moral of the Harry Potter series is Love is more powerful than Evil. There are probably many possible alternative morals, but one easy one is: If you're putting all your security eggs in one basket (or seven horcruxes), keep track of those friggin' baskets.
    • Another is "Don't let your arrogance override your intelligence." If Voldemort hadn't been so sure nobody would realize he was using horcruxes, he probably would have hidden them better and made them less obvious items. This one is even mentioned in-story as his greatest weakness; he cannot even conceive someone being as clever as him. Had he even a sliver of humility and made a horcrux out of a random rock and tossed it into a lake, he'd be unstoppable. (On the other hand, as Dumbledore pointed out in book six, if he'd had a sliver of humility in him, he wouldn't have been Lord Voldemort.)
    • Another one is "Don't keep trying the same thing over and over after it's already failed several times, try something else instead." Seriously, after failing to kill Harry with AK three times, you'd think he'd have tried something else the next time!
  • In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kilgore Trout argues that the real Aesop of The Bible is "Make sure people don't have connections before you kill them." For example, he claims that it would have been more meaningful if God had "adopted" Jesus Christ as he was dying on the cross rather than say he was God's son all along.
  • Most readers interpreted the moral of I Kissed Dating Goodbye as "Do volunteer work as a substitute for having a significant other" instead of the intended message of "Do not forget about spirituality (including, but not limited to, serving others) simply because you wish for romantic love".
  • There's a whole list of them over on Cracked, take a look.
  • Buzzfeed took a second look at various works by Dr. Seuss. Some of these are particularly Green Aesops. Considering the author, it is entirely possible that these are the intended lessons for adult readers.
    • Most of those listed are actually the primary aesop intended for the book.
    • The books were written to work on two levels: the timeless children's morality tale and political commentary on current events (for example, Marvin K. Mooney is Nixon). It's not as surprising when you realize that the first drawings he published were anti-Nazi political cartons starting in the late 1930s.
    • Green Eggs and Ham is especially odd in the two levels it has. At first glance, it's about why it's a good idea to try new things. Read a little deeper, though, and the message becomes "freedom doesn't work."
  • In The Riddle by Alison Croggon, Owan tells Maerad and Cadvan a story about how the sea once loved the mountains, however the mountains slighted the sea and the sea had been angry ever since. Cadvan interpreted it to mean that you should never refuse the love of a powerful woman, but Maerad interpreted it to mean that you should never love at all because it only causes trouble.

    Live Action TV 
  • An episode of How I Met Your Mother reveals that Barney Stinson has an Alternate Aesop Interpretation for nearly every movie he's seen which in his mind reverses the accepted role of hero and villain.
    Barney: Hey, The Karate Kid is a great movie. It's the story of a hopeful, young karate enthusiast whose dreams and moxie take him all the way to the All Valley Karate Championship. Of course, sadly he loses in the final round to that nerd kid. But, he learns an important lesson about gracefully accepting defeat.
  • In The Golden Girls episode "Til Death do We Volley," one of Sophia's "Picture It" stories falls into this. Dorothy has a high-school reunion and gets a visit from an old friend named Trudy she was super competitive with. They go play tennis, and Dorothy is so competitive Trudy has a heart attack on the court. At the reunion party at her house, Dorothy is so racked with guilt she refuses to leave her room. Sophia comes in and delivers this Aesop story twisted to fit the situation.
    Sophia: Picture it... Sicily 1852. It was mid century and the disillusioned Italy looked to the House of Savoy for leadership. Giuseppi Garibaldi, our courageous leader and not a bad dresser thought, let's regain some national pride and jump into this whole Crimean War thing... Of course, there was a big kickoff at Giuseppi's beach house and everyone came. Coincidentally, this was also the night his wife Rosa hit her sexual peak.
    Dorothy: Ma, I am in here because of guilt. This is not a story about guilt!
    Sophia: This is a story about being a bad hostess! While Rosa had Giuseppi in the bedroom with his saber around his ankles, 200 hungry guests were strip searching mice for a piece of cheese!!
    Dorothy: Ma, so whats your point!? That Rosa and I throw bad parties??
    Sophia: That's my minor point. My major point is that like Rosa, you're screwin' around in the bedroom when there's more important things to do outside!
    Dorothy: I can't believe it, that makes sense! I mean, you took the long way around, but that actually makes sense.
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Garak's interpretation of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", which provides the page quote.
  • Gibbs from NCIS provides one for a story that Ducky tells about a man who doesn't show up for his girlfriend's Christmas party. She bad-mouths him until he's discovered dead in the chimney dressed as Santa Claus with an engagement ring for her. According to Ducky, the lesson is to never judge without knowing all the facts. Gibbs' lesson? "Never a good idea to get married."
  • The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Beer Bad" is supposed to have its Anvilicious moral in the title. But the plot would have gone exactly the same if everyone were drinking soda. The real moral is "Be courteous to bartenders and others in similar roles, because if they snap they can do some serious damage." Not a bad moral, really.

    Musical Theatre 
  • The narrator of Blood Brothers explicitly provides an Alternate Aesop Interpretation that counters what the symbolism and music have been suggesting about the tragic ending: ''Do we blame superstition for what came to pass? Or could it be what we, the English, have come to know as class?'

     Religion and Mythology 
  • From the pragmatic point of view, the aesop of The Boy Who Cried Wolf is "better safe than sorry". Hell, the boy is basically the inventor of training alert!
    • There's also "Don't trust kids with something important". Or, "Don't trust a liar with anything important." After all, why leave the boy on guard duty if they know he's gonna keep acting up?
    • Another one can be seen from the villager's point of view against distrusting false alarms. After all, if you have a faulty fire alarm that keeps going off on its own, how do you actually know when there's a fire?
    • And of course, the more cynical interpretation is never tell the same lie twice.
  • The Tortoise and the Hare is normally interpreted as, "Slow and steady wins the race," but depending on the telling, it can be taken as, "Don't succumb to hubris when you have a clear advantage." Many recent examples, from American political elections to the Console Wars, bear this moral out pretty well.
    • In some versions the Tortoise outright cheats - there are multiple tortoises or the tortoise rides on the hare. In these cases the moral is, "Brains over Brawn".
  • Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Issac in Genesis 22 has been interpreted in various ways. Most interpretations from Jewish and Christian exegesis focus on Abraham's utter faith in God's commandment and hold up his willingness to make the sacrifice as a virtue. Some Christians interpret the entire passage as a foreshadowing of Jesus' crucifixion. An intriguing minority interpretation, however, is that Abraham failed the test, abandoning God's previous commandments against killing in Genesis 9. Seeing this, God begins the chain of events that would lead to the establishment of the Mosaic covenant and Jewish law.

     Webcomics 
  • Misfile's 12th book tries to have Ash learn a lesson about his responsibility to the Old Road and fellow racers, but throughout the story arc, he points out none of his fellow racers like him, which they admit to his face, they got into this situation because of their own stupidity and he is completely unaffected by the situation, only coming in to stop the pestering and is then guilt tripped into finishing things. As was pointed out on the forums, the lesson is closer to "obey peer pressure" and the responsibility lesson seems tacked on and forced.

     Western Animation 
  • The aesop of King of the Hill episode "Moving On Up" could be either "Find a way to live with the annoyances in your life" or "passive aggressively ignore the people that you can deal with and bottle the emotions that are natural".
  • In Episode 20 of Beast Wars, a massive explosion blinds most of the Maximals and leaves them wandering about in the wilds, contaminated with energon and slowly dying. When they eventually get back to the base, Rhinox declares that he is now more in touch with his beast form (i.e. his inner nature), when you would expect the aesop to be that he now has a better appreciation of his eyes and other senses. This wouldn't be that strange on its own but the ENTIRE previous episode (Law of the Jungle) was dedicated to the aesop that was tacked onto this episode! Not only was it much better done, but it also ends with a very similar (to the point of being basically identical) comment from Rhinox.
  • ThunderCats (2011) has discernible Aesops in most episodes, some more well-executed than others.
    • "Song of The Petalars" has protagonist Lion-O give a Rousing Speech about The Last Dance and that they should "live Like You Were Dying," leading his team into a battle they cannot win, instead of living to fight another day. (They're saved by a Deus ex Machina) The moral seems more like "Retreat is cowardice."
    • In "The Duelist and the Drifter" the Aesop is meant to be that we cannot rely on pure strength or weaponry alone, but must use flexibility, perception and skill to win battles. But since that amounts to a weaponless Lion-O Power Copying, perfectly replicating evasive maneuvers he's seen only once, the lesson could be "depend on your spontaneously-generated superpowers, not your sword."
  • The Aesop and Son shorts on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show had Aesop telling his son a fable with a moral, followed by his son proposing an alternate moral (which was inevitably a pun).
  • Being a show filled with Aesops once an episode, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is rife with this. A few examples:
    • "Swarm of the Century" has the Aesop that you should listen to your friends, even when they seem to not make sensenote , but most of the fanbase agrees that the message the episode actually demonstrated was "If you know the solution to a problem take the time to explain it rather than just expecting everyone to listen to you for no reason."note 
    • "Suited For Success" has had a large portion of the fanbase interpreting the episode as Take That to Executive Meddling saying "let the real artist work on the design and don't interfere."
    • "Lesson Zero"'s stated Aesop was "Don't belittle your friends' concerns". The much more obvious Aesop is "Keep a level head and don't let minor issues force you to use extreme solutions".
      • In a broader sense, it could be read as "No one is perfect, and it's okay to fail sometimes. It's better to accept failure gracefully than to abuse others to succeed."
    • The infamous "Feeling Pinkie Keen" had the ostensible moral of "just because you don't understand something doesn't make it true". Most of the fanbase either interpreted the episode as saying "Science Is Bad", or more charitably, "The purpose of science is to find the truth, not to prove your preconceived notions correct." Others still use it to point out the moral is also applicable to religion, something to rub the Hollywood Atheist's face in.
    • "Hurricane Fluttershy"'s moral is ostensibly "even if you don't feel you can make a difference, you can", but one can also get "School bullying is NOT harmless and can screw you up for life" out of it.
    • "One Bad Apple" tries to deliver the aesop "if you're bullied tell an adult", but almost immediately fails by having Applejack witness some bullying and do nothing other than frown while Babs Seed has to stand up for the CMC to make the bullies back down. This makes the aesop seem like "get a toughguy to defend you if you're bullied" instead.
  • The Simpsons episode "Homer's Enemy" was meant to show how a normal person would not be able to survive in that universe. But Frank Grimes' Sanity Slippage and eventual death came about from his own obsessive hostility towards Homer. Homer's attempts at making it up to Grimes after getting him in trouble only fuel the Green-Eyed Monster in Grimes, which lead to him concocting a scheme to humiliate the former in front of everyone. He finally snaps when his own attempt at spiting someone he doesn't like, itself a rather childish act, doesn't go as planned.
    • Which spawns its own alternate aesop interpretation, with some unfortunate implications thrown in as well; "never try to expose the rules of an insane system that rewards stupidity and punishes the wrong people. It won't work, you'll just go crazy, and everyone will focus on your craziness and not the point you were trying to make in the first place. If you have the misfortune to be born in an insane universe, your best bet is to never struggle or strive for anything in your life, since you'll only be disliked for it; conversely, if you behave in a lazy and foolish fashion, everyone will like you better."
  • One U.S. Acres episode tackles The Boy Who Cried Wolf, with Orson telling the tale to illustrate why being known as a liar is bad and explain why he's ignoring Roy, only to have an epiphany and re-interpret the Aesop as "Even liars sometimes tell the truth". You can punish someone for lying, but no one gains anything by ignoring a cry for help.

    Video Games 
  • Valkyria Chronicles has way too many aesops, but the most uncomfortable one is the one against racism. The Darcsen are openly hated as a race because of the Darcsen Calamity, and we're told over and over that it's wrong to hate the Darcsen of today just because of something that happened so long ago. Then we find out that it wasn't the Darcsen who did it, it was the Valkyrur, and the Darcsen race is exonerated while the blame is laid at the feet of the Valkyrur where it should have been all along. And this attitude drives Alicia further down into Internalized Categorism as people begin to fear her potential for destruction, and ultimately resolves never to show her Valkyria status again. So "Don't judge people based on what happened long ago, because you'll never know how it really happened" becomes "It's okay to hate an entire race, as long as it's the right entire race".

     Real Life 
  • Plastered to a school wall facing a busy street in Vienna, Austria, there are meter-high letters proclaiming: "Don't try to be an apple if you are a banana. You will always be a second-rate apple." According to the artist it's intended to be some kind of Be Yourself message, but if you ask the kids going to school there, most are (understandably) disturbed by the apparent message of "don't even bother trying to change/to rise above your social standing" or something similar.
  • A well-known anecdote told on the subject of tax cuts refers to a number of men who go to dine at a restaurant together, dividing the cost between themselves based on how wealthy each is. When the price of the meal is reduced, the wealthiest get the largest discount; the less wealthy men then either assault or kill (depending on the telling) the wealthier men, only to find they alone can no longer afford the meal. The intended meaning is to explain the arithmetic resulting in higher cuts for the rich: the unintended meaning is after you kill someone, take their stuff.


Alternative Title(s):

Alternate Moral Interpretation