Follow TV Tropes

Please don't list this on a work's page as a trope.
Examples can go on the work's YMMV tab.

Following

Applicability

Go To

https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/sinfest_star_wars.gif
"I cordially dislike allegory, and have done ever since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other resides in the purposed domination of the author."
J. R. R. Tolkien, Foreword to the 2nd edition of The Lord of the Rings

When it comes to writing thematic stories, there are essentially two methods to go about it: allegory or applicability. Which method you use will depend on how obvious you want your theme to be.

In an allegory, it's the author who supports only one interpretation of the work as canon. J. R. R. Tolkien himself hated formal allegory because the reader was forced to see nothing but the author's point of view on what they considered the theme. In answer to the many allegorical readings of the The Lord of the Rings — which he eventually got tired of getting letters about — he stated the book was not an allegory, but had applicability — the story simply happened to be comparable and applicable to many Real Life issues.

Applicability encourages the reader to interpret what the theme of any given work is. Sometimes a reader's interpretation of the meaning of the story is very different from the authorial intent. Anvilicious works with high applicability can see alternate interpretations on part of the audience. Put another way, applicable works support multiple interpretations, only some of which are those that the author specifically intended. Applicability can give a fictional work different interpretations even on different readings, and is one reason Alternate Character Interpretation, Alternate Aesop Interpretation and Wild Mass Guessing are such active topics in fandoms.

The Rainbow Lens and the Trans Audience Interpretation are particularly common versions of this. Since stories that are explicitly about LGBTQ+ people and issues were rare in the past and, to a lesser extent, still are today, LGBTQ+ fans would often gravitate to stories that could be read as metaphors for their own experiences even if the characters were canonically straight.

Compare Lowest Common Denominator. Death of the Author is the enforcement of this trope, regardless of authorial intent. Contrast with The Walrus Was Paul, where the audience tries to find meaning in a work when in fact the work isn't supposed to have a hidden meaning — the author's just messing with them.

Often leads to Periphery Demographic, Shipping, and/or Broken Base. A Misaimed Fandom can emerge when the message people read into a work is precisely the opposite of what the author intended. This is the root of many an Epileptic Tree. When this happens on a national level, it's a common cause of Germans Love David Hasselhoff. See also Does This Remind You of Anything?, Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory, What Do You Mean, It's Not Political?, Values Resonance.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Everyone agrees that Beastars is about discrimination, but no one can agree on what the different groups in the series are analogous too. What are Carnivores? Black? White? Men? Pedophiles? What are Herbivores? White? Black? Women? Children?
  • Believe it or not, Dragon Ball Z. Some fans within the Black community relate to Goku as an underdog who discovers his true heritage and learns more about his culture, and see themselves in him and his group of friends, whereas some fans within the Latino community see him as a hardworking immigrant, Gohan as his first-gen immigrant son, and Vegeta as someone who immigrated as an adult and struggles to adapt. Read this article (and some of the comments) for more details: link
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, the Amestrian war of genocide against the Ishbalan minority is so widely applicable that nobody can seem to agree on which real-life conflict it's supposed to be referencing. Is it Nazis vs. Jews? The West vs. the Islamic world? Arakawa herself said that the Ishbalans were partly inspired by the Ainu, an indigenous ethnic group who suffered persecution and cultural genocide in Japan.
  • In Revolutionary Girl Utena, there are a lot of feminist themes revolving around the character of Anthy, but because she is dark-skinned, westerners (particularly Americans) may see racial themes there as well.

    Art 
  • While it's well-known that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to the United States, what's less well-known is that it was originally gifted in honor of the Union victory in The American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, represented in the broken shackle and chain at the statue's feet. Because the statue wasn't finished until 1886, however, the original meaning was lost, especially in the post-Reconstruction era when the revisionist "Lost Cause" historiography of the Civil War (i.e. that the war was fought over states' rights rather than slavery and that the Confederacy was a Doomed Moral Victor) began to gain mainstream traction, post-Civil War optimism on race relations had turned far more bitter and cynical, and the national mood was that the "Late Unpleasantness" was something to leave in the past. As a result, its most enduring symbolism in American culture became its status as a symbol of the American Melting Pot, being the most visible landmark seen by new immigrants at the processing center on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, representing the promise of a new, freer life pursuing The American Dream. Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus", written in 1883 to raise money for the statue and cast on a bronze plaque on its pedestal in 1903, solidified this association.

    Comic Books 
  • Frank Miller wrote the graphic novel 300 before the 9/11 attacks and the resulting War on Terror, but by the time the film adaptation came out, current events led to two radically different interpretations of the story becoming widespread, both of them related to the war: the Spartans as the Americans, and the Spartans as the Iraqis.
    • On one hand, its story about heroic Greek warriors in the cradle of Western civilization battling an invading army from the Middle East was widely interpreted as a defense of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by extension, a xenophobic treatment of Muslims. Miller's own hawkish politics and Islamophobic viewpoints were often used to lend credence to this view.
    • On the other hand, the story was also read as a tale of outmatched but brave and ferocious fighters, bound by fanaticism, battling hopeless odds against an invasion by the decadent superpower of the ancient period. Many critics of American foreign policy at the time read it as a Roman à Clef for the Iraqi insurgency fighting to kick the Americans out of their country.
  • Invoked and discussed In-Universe by Alan Moore in Issue 7 of Providence. After seeing Pitman's paintings, Robert Black puts on his amateur art critic hat and theorizes ghouls/zombies and other beings as metaphors for middle-class fears of class uprising. Pitman notes that he's never seen things that way, but Sure, Let's Go with That.
  • Watchmen. Go to the Headscratchers page for it, and you'll see people who see Rorschach as the only heroic character, people who see Rorschach as the least sympathetic of all the characters, people who argue over exactly how long Ozymandias's peace will last (and whether or not he was justified), people disgusted by Dr Manhattan's revelation over the Comedian and Sally Jupiter getting together after he attempted to rape her, and people who see that moment as a heartwarming moment. Alan Moore has officially stated that he was very much aiming for this, and compared his vision for the book to a diamond with many different facets, where any reader can look through any of the facets that they choose and still get a completely consistent and coherent view of the story and all the events in it.
  • Anti-mutant prejudice in X-Men can stand in for a metaphor for any number of Real Life prejudices. Fans have tended to take this very literally and argue about what the "original meaning" was and how it has changed. Word of God has confirmed, upon occasion, that individual writers have used it for a specific metaphorical purpose; Grant Morrison, for one, has said that they used their run to comment to the demonization of young people. Not even this squares completely with his comics, but it makes a lot more sense if you sympathize way too much with Quentin Quire. But that does not mean that every writer has used it as a metaphor, or has used it for the same one every time. That it has been so readily used as allegory for such diverging issues as racial tensions, LGBT struggles, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and generational conflict is proof enough of this. Interestingly, the movie series takes it at face-value: normal humans are terrified of going extinct, and the prospect of actually siring the species that will replace us is unthinkable, thus the fear and hatred. Analogies are also drawn in the film with the debate over American Gun Politics, with some mutant powers seen as threats to society by their very nature due to how useful they are for killing people.

    Films — Animation 
  • Encanto:
    • Mirabel can be seen as an allegory for somebody born with a disability, as she doesn't have any magical powers unlike the rest of her family note  and as a result feels unaccepted by and excluded from her family, even though this is unintentional on the Madrigals' part. Indeed, many disabled viewers found that Mirabel's struggle with self-worth and acceptance resonated strongly with their own experiences.
      • Adding onto this are a few Innocently Insensitive comments - such as being given an "Extra special gift basket" for an "Extra special" person (her) because she didn't get any gift. Many people who had disabilities grew up with such Innocently Insensitive comments.
    • The concept of the Madrigals having magical gifts can also serve as a metaphor for "gifted children" and the negative side effects for both those who are considered “gifted” and those who aren’t. Mirabel is constantly brushed off because of her lack of a magical power, which makes her feel insecure, depressed, and as if she’s not truly part of the Family Madrigal. Meanwhile, her older sisters are forced to constantly live up to the high expectations placed onto them by their family and community because of their magical powers. Luisa has to use her Super-Strength to perform Herculean chores daily with no breaks, Isabela has to maintain her image as the perfect golden child, and both can't dare disagree with the roles forced onto them out of fear of disappointing others or losing their identities.
    Luisa (during Surface Pressure): I'm pretty sure I'm worthless if I can't be of service!
    Isabela (during What Else Can I Do?): I'm so sick of pretty, I want something true, don't you?
  • Frozen:
    • The song "Let it Go" is about the joy and relief of no longer hiding a secret about yourself. This is open to interpretations including, but not limited to, coming out of the closet, either as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual. Elsa's lack of love interest or any romantic inclinations in the films has added to this.
    • It could also be interpreted as coming out of the closet as transgender.
    • John Lasseter has also spoken about seeing parallels between Elsa's struggle with her powers and his own son's struggle with diabetes.
    • Elsa has a personal secret which isolates her from her family, and is never seen eating. This did not go unnoticed by anorexics. It especially stands out in "Frozen Fever": Elsa has organized the treasure hunt for Anna, and one of the "treasures" Anna gets (and is seen eating) is a sandwich — but where is a sandwich (or anything else to eat during this day-long event) for Elsa? Much of the short involves Anna trying to get Elsa to take care of herself, while Elsa pretends to both others and to herself that everything's fine in her desire to see the day as "perfect." The short ends with Anna finally convincing Elsa to let her help after Elsa nearly gets herself killed with this attitude, and how do we see Anna taking care of Elsa during this ending? Feeding her.
    • Autistic people often identify with Elsa and her "Let It Go" song. She was just born different from the rest, the majority of people who weren't born different react negatively to her difference, and she just wants to be accepted.
    • In the same vein, people with mental illnesses often identify with Elsa's journey. Director Jennifer Lee has described "anxiety and depression" as major themes of the film, and while she didn't necessarily mean "clinical" anxiety and depression, the applicability is still there. People with disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can also relate to her, as they deal with the fear of having violent psychotic episodes and hurting loved ones as Elsa fears hurting Anna and others with her emotion-fueled ice powers.
    • On a simpler level, Elsa and Anna's relationship also reflects a typical coming-of-age journey shared by older and younger siblings, as director Lee did with her own older sister. As small children the siblings are close; then the older sibling shuts out the Annoying Younger Sibling as s/he becomes a teenager, develops more "grown up" interests, and becomes absorbed in his/her own adolescent moodiness and coming-of-age process; but when they're both mature adults, they can become close again.
  • Frozen II:
    • Anna's song "The Next Right Thing" shows her overwhelmed with grief, yet finding the strength to carry on with the mission one step at a time after Elsa and Olaf both die. It obviously reflects the grieving process after the death of a loved one, and co-director Chris Buck has stated that it was largely inspired by his own experience with grief after his son died in a car accident. But Anna's voice actress Kristen Bell has also pointed out that the moment parallels her own struggle with clinical depression and anxiety (in fact "do the next right thing" is her personal self-motivating mantra), so there's applicability there too.
    • The plot involves finding out why the Northuldra and the residents of Arendelle broke out into a fight 34 years prior, even when Arendelle built a dam to bridge them to the Northuldra's forest as a peace offering. However, as they dig deeper, Elsa and Anna discover that their grandfather, King Runeard, actually built the dam because he knew it would deplete Northalda's resources. He didn't trust the Northuldras because they practice magic, so he decided to sabotage their resources so he could force them to trade with Arendelle in order to submit them to his rule and forcibly assimilate them into his kingdom. Runeard then killed the Northuldra leader in cold blood to cover this up, while the Northuldra leader was tricked into letting his guard down underneath the impression there were going to have a peaceful conversation, no less. While the story was written with the historical and current discrimination the Sámi people suffer from the dominating Nordic cultures in mind (since Northuldra and Arendelle are Fantasy Counterpart Cultures of the Sámi and Norway, respectively) this can be easily applied to any ethnic group that has a history of being persecuted because their traditions and way of life was viewed as "wrong" by a dominating culture note .
  • In Home on the Range, the song "Will the Sun Ever Shine Again?" was written as a reflection of songwriter Alan Menken's thoughts post-9/11 and The War on Terror. It can be interpreted as a metaphor for depression, and also fits how many people feel about the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 Pandemic.
  • Invoked by co-director Phil Lord for The LEGO Movie. He openly stated that "My dream is to have terrible undergraduate term papers written about the movie."
  • Likewise, the anti-bullying message of The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part has also been interpreted as a criticism of toxic masculinity, specifically with the villain Rex Dangervest's obsession with surface-level markers of maturity that instead reveal him to be grossly immature, even though this wasn't the filmmakers' intent.
  • The plot of The Nightmare Before Christmas has often been read in more recent times as a satire of cultural appropriation. Jack Skellington, fascinated with the customs of Christmas but not understanding the context behind them, poorly recreates those customs by treating them like his own frightening Halloween traditions, and in doing so utterly butchers the meaning of Christmas and ruins the holiday.
  • The Toy Story films have at least two possible interpretations: "toys as children" and "toys as parents."
    • In the first interpretation, Andy (and later Bonnie) is like a parent to the toys. The tension about "Who is the favorite?" that dominates the first film parallels Sibling Rivalry, in particular with Buzz's arrival and Woody's jealousy of him mirroring Infant Sibling Jealousy, which eventually gives way to a close bond as Woody becomes Buzz's Big Brother Mentor and realizes that Andy still loves him too. The next three films, which deal with the issue of toys being left behind when a child grows up, parallel a child's fear of growing up and leaving the security of their parents' home, but accepting it when it inevitably happens and embracing adulthood, knowing that their happy childhood memories and their parents' love will always be with them. The fourth film can even be seen as encouraging young adults not to let a sense of duty to their parents keep them from following their own dreams and desires – note that Woody eventually leaves Bonnie to be with his Love Interest Bo Peep, i.e. leaving his "mother" and cleaving unto his "wife".
    • In the second and more popular interpretation, Woody is like Andy's father. The fact that Andy has no father of his own makes it all the more convincing that Woody should fill that role. The fear of being "replaced" in the first film arguably parallels a parent's fear of being incompetent, embarrassing, or not "cool" enough for their child. Woody's jealousy of Buzz might mirror a divorced father's jealousy of a stepfather, or any father's envy of another man (teacher, coach, celebrity, etc.) whom his son seems to idolize more. The next three films then deal with a parent's struggle as their child grows up and leaves the nest: first accepting that it will happen (the second film), then facing it when it does happen (the third film), then finding a new purpose in life afterwards (the fourth film). Bo Peep's independent life in the fourth film can also be seen to champion women who defy cultural expectations and choose not to have children.
  • Turning Red:
    • Some fans have related to Mei's struggles as being a metaphor for being closeted and LGBT by how Mei initially sees herself as a "freak" and is terrified what everyone will think of her when they find out. Her friends ultimately showing they still love Mei for who she is and how she gradually gets accepted by everyone else is even more heartwarming in that context.
    • This has also struck a chord with those in the Furry Fandom who see Mei's story being parallel to that of a young teen who is a furry and struggling to grow up as one while trying to come to terms with it and seeking acceptance from friends and family.
    • Disabled, neurodivergent, and mentally ill viewers, especially those who are also female or AFAB, and even more so if they're East Asian (or from cultures with similar ideals about conformity, achievement/perfection, emotional control, and normality in general), have seen parallels with the transformation also being a genetic thing that is an intrinsic part of them, to be managed and coexisted alongside, not "cured" or repressed until the point of a meltdown that may endanger themselves and/or others.
  • Zootopia was intended to examine the effects of bias in a society where two groups (predator and prey) had a historical tension between them. While the creative team worked hard to avoid any direct racial analogues in the film, that didn't stop many from seeing implications of simple racism, white supremacy, social justice circles, police brutality, the LGBT movement, patriarchy, political conflict between the right and left wings, election debates, and even the War on Drugs.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • This trope is why Japanese samurai movies and American Westerns experienced so much crossover in the '50s and '60s. Both were genres about romanticized, old-fashioned ways of life that had gone away by the end of the 19th century with the spread of industry and modern technology, nostalgia for which figured heavily into both countries' respective national mythologies. Also, they were each characterized by iconic weapons (katanas for samurai films, six-shooters for Westerns) that are portrayed as extremely cool, and very similar tropes in the characterization of their heroes and villains. It didn't take long for filmmakers on both sides of the Pacific to realize that what worked in one could work in the other. Akira Kurosawa was notably influenced by the films of John Ford when he made Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, which in turn received Western remakes of their own as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Fistful of Dollars.
  • Ridley Scott said that there is no allegory to be found in Alien, and that his intent was to make a simple monster movie. That has done nothing to stop decades of endless analysis of the film's use of H. R. Giger's extremely Freudian imagery, the role of Ripley as a feminist icon, and its portrayal of a group of working-class space truckers abused by a rapacious corporation, among other things.
  • Battle Royale (2000) is about the Japanese government and school system, in an attempt to battle juvenile delinquency, forcing classes of high school students to kill each other until only one emerges victorious. The movie attracted multiple interpretations from reviewers, who read into it a satire of the harshly competitive nature of exams and education, of the poor state of the Japanese economy at the time, of the Japanese economy shifting towards elitism and dividing people into castes based on intelligence, and of hostile relations between the young and old. And that's just how it was viewed in its home country of Japan (and by those versed in modern Japanese culture) — for Americans in the wake of the Columbine massacre just a year prior to the film's release, and especially amidst the wave of school shootings in the 2010s, it was very easy to read a metaphor for violence in schools and political apathy towards the plight of the young people who suffered from it, even though Koushun Takami wasn't thinking about life in the US when crafting the story.
  • Battles Without Honor and Humanity is both a Genre Deconstruction of yakuza films and a look at how economic downturns and trickle-down economics affect poorer classes, with much of the Yakuza violence in the beginning being sparked by class inequality and desperation.
  • As the documentary Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies notes, it's probable that the makers of The Brain That Wouldn't Die had no idea that their film, which they cranked out on a five-day shooting schedule, could be interpreted as a feminist parable. Taken on its own, the film (almost accidentally) makes a powerful statement on idealized feminine beauty and male desire in how it portrays the suffering of Jan, the owner of the titular brain, at the hands of her womanizing fiancé.
  • Brazil: Liberals, conservatives, communists, anarchists, objectivists, and others have gotten all kinds of different ideas about the film and who it's supporting. Terry Gilliam has noted that the reason the film has such broad appeal to people all over the political spectrum is expressly because he didn't favor any particular group. The film is anti-authoritarian in general rather than targeting anyone specifically, allowing many different people to empathize with the characters and their situation, because the setting and story are vague enough they could be applied to any number of situations.
  • The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962) was made long before global warming and climate change became big issues, but is still about climate change which has been caused accidentally by technology (simultaneous nuclear tests at the north and south poles change the tilt of the Earth's axis).
  • District 9 is either a political movie giving a scathing indictment of South African Apartheid with some cool sci-fi elements for flavour, or it's a kick-ass action film with a strong underlying moral warning of the dangerous of systemic racism and corporate overreach.
  • Don't Look Up is a satirical Disaster Movie with an Anvilicious Climate Change Allegory. But given that between its announcement in 2019 and its release in 2021 the COVID-19 Pandemic hit the world, audiences had seen many of its criticisms (denialism, greed, questionable government response) applied to the disease as well. Some, in fact, argued that it was more effective as a film satirizing the response to COVID than Global Warming.
  • This is why Hong Kong martial arts movies gained such a large African-American fandom in The '70s. Not only were they some of the few stories about non-white heroes playing on the big screen, but many of these movies were about commoners learning secret techniques to become badasses and fight back against The Man. As such, a generation of young Black men watching these films in inner-city grindhouse theaters connected the protagonists' militant struggle to their own lives in the era of Black Power. American films like The Last Dragon and The Man with the Iron Fists that fused Hong Kong action with Blaxploitation would later emerge from this fandom and nostalgia for it, as did the name and martial arts stylings of the Hip-Hop group the Wu-Tang Clan.
  • Each version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers follows the same basic plot, but uses the aliens as a metaphor for different contemporary fears, illustrating how that basic plot can be reinvented and reinterpreted in different ways over the decades.
    • For starters, the makers of the 1956 version insisted that they did not intend any subtext, but many people have read into it a metaphor for both communism and, alternatively, McCarthyism. The former metaphor, incidentally, was the one that Robert A. Heinlein made explicit in his very similar 1951 novel The Puppet Masters.
    • The 1978 version, meanwhile, turned it into a story about urban alienation, pop psychology, born-again Christianity, and post-Watergate paranoia in the streets of San Francisco at the tail end of the counterculture.
    • The 1992 version moved the setting to an Army base in Alabama, and used that setting to satirize suburban alienation and military regimentation.
    • The Faculty, a 1998 film inspired by the above that moved the story to a contemporary High School, used it to comment on the conformity imposed on teenagers by a rigid school system and by the Popularity Food Chain.
    • The 2007 version used the story as a metaphor for the paranoia of The War on Terror, with the setting moved to Washington, D.C. and the protagonists unable to trust anybody around them because they might be a terrorist... sorry, pod person.
  • Juno was embraced by activists on both sides of the abortion rights debate in the United States. Pro-choice activists saw it as a film that showed the pressure that Teen Pregnancy can cause and why a teenage girl might want to abort the child, while also poking fun at the other side in the form of the obnoxious protester in front of the abortion clinic. Pro-life activists, meanwhile, saw it as a Good Girls Avoid Abortion story in which Juno ultimately opts to have the baby and put it up for adoption. The film's writer Diablo Cody staunchly supports abortion rights, and said that she was shocked by the embrace it got from opponents of abortion.
    Cody: Back in 2008, I got a letter from some administrator at my Catholic high school thanking me for writing a movie that was in line with the school's values. And I was like: "What have I done?" My objective as an artist is to be a traitor to that culture, not to uplift it.
  • The Lighthouse is either a Period Drama-slash-character study about two lighthouse keepers who are stranded on an island during a bad storm and driven to madness by the isolation, or it is a Cosmic Horror Story about two men who are cursed by the gods of the sea for violating maritime tradition, being plagued by supernatural occurences on a haunted island. Or maybe the whole film is just the last, guilt-induced Dying Dream of Canadian explorer Thomas Howard as he dies of frostbite, as Wake suggests near the end.
  • In the US, thanks to the English-language dub glossing over some of the less family-friendly parts of penguin behavior, March of the Penguins proved oddly popular with religious conservatives, who saw in it lessons for humans about monogamy and family values and even suggested that the penguins were an argument for "intelligent design" against evolution. Director Luc Jacquet found this interpretation amusing and strongly criticized it, noting that, in real life (and as the original French-language version pointed out), penguin pairings only last a single mating season, meaning that they have an astronomical "divorce rate". National Review editor Rich Lowry invoked the MST3K Mantra, claiming in the conservative magazine's blog that The BBC had been bugging him to make a statement about the film as a political statement about rescuing America.
    "As politely as I could I told her, 'Lady, they're just birds.'"
  • Mars Attacks!: The scene where the president tries to form a truce with the Martians and delivers a great Rousing Speech to do so, only for them to kill him is nowadays often compared to attempts to form peace with other countries.
  • The Matrix, a film about the reality we know being a lie designed to enslave us, has attracted fans from all over the spectrum, from LGBT people who see it as a metaphor for being trapped by heteronormative sexual norms (the film's creators both being transgender, albeit closeted at the time), to far-right activists who embraced the Red Pill, Blue Pill scene as a rallying cry, to plain old teen outcasts wishing to escape from their boring suburban life. This episode of Really That Good goes into more detail on how the film's applicability made its message so universal for a generation of '90s teenagers.
  • Midsommar is a movie filled with pagan imagery whose plot lends itself easily to metaphor, so naturally, there are many different takes on what it all represents. The most popular interpretation is that it's about a couple slowly realizing that their relationship is falling apart, with Dani abandoning her boyfriend Christian over the course of the film. It's also been described as a satire of white supremacy and nativism in its portrayal of the Hårga, a commune of conspicuously Nordic-looking people engaged in traditional, pre-Christian European pagan rituals who are willing to murder outsiders who threaten their way of life. Likewise, this article by Emily VanDerWerff for Vox notes that Dani's journey in the film reflected her own as a transgender woman before she came out: feeling like the "odd man out" amidst the all-male friend group around her, and becoming much happier and more at ease as she connects with the Hårga women.
  • Similarly, mother! (2017) is a Surreal Horror movie that's seemingly built for all manner of metaphorical readings. People have read into it Biblical themes (particularly concerning the Fall of Man), a Green Aesop about climate change, a Capitalism Is Bad message, a metaphor for misogyny, and a Humans Are Bastards message. Writer/director Darren Aronofsky has intentionally kept mum about any "correct" interpretation of the film's allegory, except to say that people shouldn't overthink it.
    Aronofsky: The movie has a dream-logic and that dream-logic makes sense. But if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.
  • George A. Romero didn't intend for Night of the Living Dead (1968) to have a political message, but that was what many people read into it. He rolled with it, and his later films notably wound up more expressly political and satirical.
  • Bong Joon-ho discussed this with regards to Parasite (2019) becoming a breakout hit internationally. While he wrote it with a specific South Korean context in mind, the fact that it resonated so broadly made him realize just how applicable those ideas were all over the world.
    Bong: When directing the movie, I tried to express a sentiment specific to the Korean culture and I thought that it was full of Koreanness if seen from an outsider's perspective, but upon screening the film after completion, all the responses from different audiences were pretty much the same, which made me realize that the topic was universal, in fact. Essentially, we all live in the same country called capitalism.
  • As noted in this article by Randall Colburn for The AV Club, The Passion of the Christ was written and directed by Mel Gibson, a devout traditionalist Catholic,note  and rooted in a perspective on the Gospels and Christian theology that brought the film under fire from mainstream Catholic and Protestant theologians. Traditionalist Catholics, however, were not the audience that propelled it to break multiple box-office records. No, that would come from evangelical Protestants, who saw, in its graphic portrayal of Jesus' crucifixion before a braying mob, a metaphor for their perceived marginalization within the wider society, with the promise that one day they would inherit the Earth.
  • Prometheus was designed for Wild Mass Guessing. One moment of Idiot Ball could mean an hour of theorizing behind why it is so.
  • Star Wars gets this treatment a lot. The films are archetypal enough that just about anybody can make a convincing argument that they support their beliefs, and have been called allegory for wars, religions, social movements, political leaders, and who knows what else. Costume designer John Mollo has indicated that imperial officer dress was designed after World War I and Nazi German officers, which is also where "stormtroopers" get their name. George Lucas has said:
  • Paul Verhoeven created the film adaptation of Starship Troopers as a satire of the ideals of Robert A. Heinlein's original novel, drawing on his own experience with fascism in the occupied Netherlands to portray the Terran Federation as a fascist military regime that devalues its own people and sees them as cogs in the war machine. During the Turn of the Millennium, however, the film was reexamined through the lens of The War on Terror, its satire seen as uncannily mirroring many criticisms of Bush-era militarism: a foreign, low-tech enemy stages a devastating attack against a major city, causing the Federation to go to war on a distant desert world and get bogged down in a quagmire.
  • John Carpenter wrote They Live! as a satire of Reaganism and consumer capitalism, but its plot, about evil space aliens infiltrating Earth and brainwashing the populace with subliminal messages to turn them into consumerist sheep, has naturally attracted a large Conspiracy Theorist fandom, one that Carpenter has mixed feelings about. (He specifically told neo-Nazi fans of the film to go to hell.)

    Literature 
  • This article from Cracked lists several books whose main theme was interpreted in a completely different manner than expected.
  • George Orwell wrote Animal Farm as a Roman à Clef of how the Russian Revolution ended up reestablishing the very same tyranny it fought to overthrow as its leaders grew increasingly self-centered, power-hungry, and hypocritical. However, because it masks that metaphor in a family-friendly story about Talking Animals and never directly comments on communism, it's become popular worldwide in many newly democratic and ex-colonial nations among critics of politicians who use their backgrounds as freedom fighters to shield themselves from criticism. In Zimbabwe, for instance, its serialization in a popular newspaper in 2000 saw it quickly embraced as a metaphor for how their country's liberation from White minority rule turned sour during the subsequent dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, who many Zimbabweans saw as a real-life version of the book's pig dictator Napoleon, such that it eventually got an official Shona-language translation.
  • This essay, which argues that Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges's biggest influence was the internet, which was invented four years after he died.
  • Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has enough of this going on that Lucy Mangan's Milestone Celebration retrospective Inside Charlie's Chocolate Factory devotes two sidebars to examining the Marxist and Freudian interpretations (albeit with tongue planted firmly in cheek!).
  • The Collector is a book written by John Fowles about an unloved man called Frederick Clegg. Frederick wins enough money to buy a house and kidnaps a beautiful art student called Miranda, keeping her prisoner in a house that he refurbished into a Gilded Cage for her. Frederick, due to him being an isolated young man with a poor grasp on social cues, a need to control and a desire to collect things in addition to his intense desire yet aversion to having sex with woman can either be interpreted as Frederick either being autistic, suffering from limerence or that he is a proto-incel.
    • The Collector as a whole can function as a metaphor for a limerent attraction to someone. The first two parts of the book show Frederick being obsessed with Miranda -his limerence object-. He's awkward around her yet intensely attracted, is utterly devoted to her despite her lack of interest and later animosity. Then she does something to make him lose all respect, causing his "love" for her to turn into smouldering hate. Eventually, his hate for her dies along with their relationship with the ending showing the limerent cycle starting anew.
    • In regards to Frederick being a prototypical incel, it's noted that early in the novel, he mentions having sex with a prostitute but takes no joy in it; which contrasts to his intense desire to have the reciprocated love of Miranda. His subtle misogyny (e.g his Madonna-Whore Complex) later turns to open hatred of Miranda, using her to create degrading images much like how an incel views women as whores who degrade themselves for other men because they were rejected by women they were interested in.
  • Discussed in Masahiro Imamura's debut novel Death Among The Undead, as every character in the book discusses at one point or another what the zombies "mean" or "represent" in their own minds, always influenced by their own worldviews or prejudices: The Casanova compares them to people who believe in love because they're both stupid and ruled by their base impulses, the detective views them as a particularly difficult puzzle to solve, the narrator, who had previously lost his home to an earthquake, interprets them as a reminder of mankind's powerlessness before disasters, and the obligatory zombie movie fanboy, while admitting that he personally just views them as a source of excitement, is the first one to observe the way zombies are only ever "discussed" as reflections of the speaker's own ego, a view the narrator agrees with after the culprit submits their own view: the zombies were a convenient plot device to enable them to commit an unprecedented crime.
  • Miguel de Cervantes originally wrote Don Quixote as a spoof of Knight Errant tales, but its hero was interpreted as idealism personified for many readers. Annoyed, Cervantes wrote a sequel to hammer home the point the readers apparently missed. Much to his shock, the second half was considered more brilliant and was better-received. Different ages have tended to read different things into the novel. When first published, it was usually interpreted as a comic novel. After The French Revolution it was popular in part due to its central ethic that individuals can be right while society is quite wrong and seen as disenchanting — not comic at all. In the 19th century it was seen as a social commentary, and the Russians' interpretation of Don Quixote has shadows of Messiah Creep, but no one could easily tell "whose side Cervantes was on".
    • Literary critic Harold Bloom wrote in his article "The Knight in the Mirror" that every reader will interpret Don Quixote in his or her own way, and all of those interpretations will be valid. It also means that none of them could be valid, because readers' impressions of themselves are reflected by the novel.
    Bloom: The aesthetic wonder is ... when we stand back from the huge book and ponder its shape and endless range of meaning. No critic's account of Cervantes's masterpiece agrees with, or even resembles, any other critic's impressions. Don Quixote is a mirror held up not to nature, but to the reader. How can this bashed and mocked knight errant be, as he is, a universal paradigm?
    • This was parodied by Jorge Luis Borges in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." The story is about a man who attempts to write a novel identical to Don Quixote, from a modern perspective. Borges deadpan explains that, while Menard might use exactly the same words as Cervantes, the fact he's writing in the 20th century means he must mean something subtly different by them.
  • While Frank Herbert's politics were stridently libertarian and flowed through his stories, Dune nevertheless picked up a fanbase that spanned the political spectrum. Libertarians, of course, embraced his cynical view of government and of political saviors, in which the Galactic Conqueror Paul Atreides is portrayed as a Dark Messiah. Feminists embraced the sexually egalitarian culture of the Fremen, filled as it is with Action Girls who are treated as the equals of men, as well as the all-female Bene Gesserit order of scholars. Environmentalists embraced its depiction of the titular planet's unique biosphere as almost a living thing in its own right, a theme Denis Villeneuve, writer and director of the 2021 film adaptation, focused on with regards to climate change specifically. It's also been read as a parable of the decline of The Roman Empire, of the rise of Islam, and a deconstruction of The Chosen One. It even attracted a Misaimed Fandom of fascists who saw Paul as a legitimate Übermensch and a model fascist leader, as well as Muslims who embraced the book's Middle Eastern and Islamic influences and aesthetics, despite criticism of "great" leaders and organized religion being part of the book's central theme.
  • Umberto Eco is a major pioneer in this technique.
    • The Name of the Rose itself is about this. The detective character is constantly trying to interpret the clues in their proper contexts. There are so many ways to read the book that, like the symbolic rose, the conflicting interpretations make it practically meaningless. All the interpretations any reader gets are all valid.
    • The same holds true for Foucault's Pendulum. In one of his essays, Eco wrote that even giving a work of fiction a name is to determine the reader's interpretation of it too much.
  • Tom Perrotta originally wrote Election (later adapted into a more famous film by Alexander Payne) as a Roman à Clef satire of the 1992 United States Presidential election, with Tammy's run for Student Council President in particular based on H. Ross Perot's firebrand independent campaign. However, many critics and political journalists rediscovered it during the 2016 election, arguing that it worked just as effectively as a sendup of the ridiculousness of that election. Hillary Rodham Clinton in particular saw many, many comparisons to Tracy Flick, the perky teenage overachiever whose run for student council president is derailed by both an outsider's campaign and a teacher who doesn't trust her, to the point where both Reese Witherspoon (who played Tracy in the film) and Clinton herself made note of it when the two of them met.
  • Fahrenheit 451, a story of a society that burns all books, has seen many interpretations as to what Ray Bradbury's main satirical target was, especially since Bradbury himself has lent credence to all of them.
    • The first and most obvious, given the history of book burning as one of the most notorious and blunt methods of censorship, is that Bradbury was criticizing censorship. This was Bradbury's original interpretation, specifically citing the repressive intellectual climate of both the Red Scare in the US and Stalinism in the USSR.
      Bradbury: I wrote this book at a time when I was worried about the way things were going in this country four years ago. Too many people were afraid of their shadows; there was a threat of book burning. Many of the books were being taken off the shelves at that time. And of course, things have changed a lot in four years. Things are going back in a very healthy direction. But at the time I wanted to do some sort of story where I could comment on what would happen to a country if we let ourselves go too far in this direction, where then all thinking stops, and the dragon swallows his tail, and we sort of vanish into a limbo and we destroy ourselves by this sort of action.
    • It has also been read as a critique of the growth of mass media (especially television) in the postwar years, which its critics felt was dumbing down the public and creating a culture of Anti-Intellectualism where the kind of Moral Guardians and mass censorship portrayed in the story were able to run amok in the first place. This was the interpretation that Bradbury himself eventually gravitated to, to the point of pushing back against readers and critics who focused on the anti-censorship message.
    • In more recent years, it's also been embraced by conservatives as a critique of Political Overcorrectness, thanks to its depiction of its society's book ban as the logical conclusion of attempts to sanitize all culture so it was no longer offensive to any of its many small special interests. Here, too, Bradbury voiced his approval.
      Bradbury: It works even better because we have political correctness now. Political correctness is the real enemy these days. The black groups want to control our thinking and you can’t say certain things. The homosexual groups don’t want you to criticize them. It’s thought control and freedom of speech control.
    • Beyond all that, it has also been interpreted as a tale about holding onto one's individuality in a conformist society that rejects those who step out of line.
  • A huge number of different interpretations exist as to what Hunter S. Thompson was trying to say with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, regarding whether it's supposed to be a comedy, serious, political, or just an exaggeration of things Thompson actually did. The reality is that they are all right, as the whole point of Gonzo journalism is to allow the reader to be put in the same frame of mind as the author, whatever the author was thinking at the time. In the case of Thompson, a man who was politically astute, had a great sense of humor, and was known for being over the top, this leads to a book much like him: something equal parts genius, lunatic, and poet.
  • Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale as a dystopian vision of the Christian Right attaining power in the United States and destroying women's rights. During The War on Terror, it was also embraced by critics of Islamic fundamentalism, who saw societies like those of Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia as comparable to Gilead. One writer even stated that "Atwood had predicted the Taliban." Atwood herself, writing in The Guardian two months after the 9/11 attacks, stated that a visit she made to Afghanistan in 1978, just before the Soviet invasion, did influence the portrayal of the handmaids' dress.
  • Several books have been written on the subject of Harry Potter symbolism, to the point where there is now a greater body of work devoted to explaining Harry Potter than there is Harry Potter to explain. Whether Harry goes on a Grail Quest, sacrifices himself as a Christ figure, purifies his soul with alchemy, or re-enacts a mythological journey to the Underworld, there's probably a book explaining it somewhere.
  • Dr. Seuss wrote Horton Hears a Who! after visiting Japan as an apology for his anti-Japanese sentiments during World War II, in particular his racist Wartime Cartoons, writing the microscopic Whos as metaphorical for the Japanese and intending for the book to be a pro-civil rights allegory as Horton seeks to protect them from those who would bring them harm on the grounds that all people deserve the same rights — or, to use Horton's words, "a person's a person, no matter how small." The phrasing of that message, however, caused it to also be embraced by anti-abortion activists, who see unborn children as caught in the same predicament as the Whos as others seek to trample over them for their own gain. While Seuss himself never spoke on the matter, his widow Audrey Geisel has criticized this interpretation, seeing it as an attempt to politicize the story.
  • Happens in-universe in Isaac Asimov's "The Immortal Bard". William Shakespeare is amazed at the commentary and lessons taken from his stories, comparing it to creating a monsoon out of the water in a damp washcloth.
  • Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid is open to many allegorical interpretations, as are its various adaptations.
    • The undersea world of the merfolk can be seen to represent the pagan world, while the human world represents Christianity, which requires more sacrifices and hardship than paganism but which promises an immortal soul and rewards after death.
    • The undersea world can also represent childhood while the human world represents adulthood, with the mermaid's journey either portrayed as tragic Innocence Lost (as in the original tale and the opera Rusalka) or as leaving behind the limits of childhood to embrace the new joys and freedom of adulthood (as in the Disney film).
    • The two incompatible worlds can also represent different social classes, with the mermaid as a literally lower-born person, doomed to be snubbed by the humans who represent the upper class. This arguably reflects the working class-born Andersen's "fish out of water" feelings among the elite. The loose adaptation Once on This Island runs with this by explicitly making the story about peasants vs. Grand Hommes instead of merfolk vs. humans.
    • In the same vein, the two worlds can represent different races, either with the merfolk as the minority race and the humans as the privileged majority who snubs them (the easier interpretation of the original tale, which again, Once on This Island makes explicit), or with the merfolk as the bigoted majority and the mermaid as an open-minded individual who sees the value in a different culture (as in the Disney film).
    • Both the original tale and Disney's are open to feminist interpretations too: either "Don't throw everything away for a man, or you'll be doomed" (the original) or "Do leave behind your oppressive old life and its patriarchal rules to build the life you choose, with the romantic partner you choose" (the Disney film).
    • The story is also very much open to a queer reading. Andersen was bisexual and is thought to have partly based the tale on his own unrequited love for another man. The themes of forbidden love, of being literally unable to speak those feelings, and of being rejected in favor of a more "conventional" partner are easy to read in that light. So is the theme of parental opposition that the Disney version emphasizes. The fact that the mermaid literally wants to change her body also brings to mind the experiences of transgender people, especially in the Disney film, where Ariel doesn't just want to become human for love but distinctly wants to be human and have every human experience from the start.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien always denied his Middle-earth works being an allegory for anything, but said that because they were so archetypal and universal (literally a lost mythology), their stories and themes could be compared and applied to many real/historical stories and issues. It's one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings is so difficult to pigeonhole and figure out what the theme is — he didn't put any obvious one in. Once, when pressed, he responded that The Lord of the Rings was about "Death and the desire for deathlessness. Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by a Man!" — meaning that fear of death is the ultimate reason humans do anything. This explains why people from a wide spectrum of viewpoints tend to read the same book and yet get widely different interpretations of the theme of the book. This lack of an obvious theme also makes it hard for some readers to get into the books because they expect the books to clearly show what theme it is.
    • In later editions of the book, Tolkien specifically goes into detail about the incorrect notion of his books being an allegory for World War II, which was probably a comparison he was tired of. He argued that if his book were based on World War II, Saruman would've gone into Mordor during the chaos and found out the knowledge needed to make his own Ring of Power. The War for the Ring would end up being a war of Evil Versus Evil with Hobbits being destroyed in the process. As he stated in the foreword of the book, most of the things people tie to WWII were written before the war even started.
    • The Éowyn subplot can remind western readers of the story of Joan of Arc. To Chinese readers, Éowyn's story can easily be seen as a version of the story of Hua Mulan.
    • In a letter, a fan asked Tolkien if the flying steeds of the Nazgûl (large, naked, leather-winged birdlike monsters) were pterodactyls. His reply was that if that's what the reader thought they were, it could be a valid interpretation of the text.
    • On the cast commentary for the Lord of the Rings movies, Sir Ian McKellen makes tacit reference to the "innocent physical affection" displayed by Sam towards Frodo in the book and the rather famous modern interpretation of it. Sean Bean and Elijah Wood also comment on a specific scene, mentioning a fan who wrote in to thank them for including a nod to this rather than avoiding it.
    • The physical and psychological effects of bearing the One Ring are often compared to the effects of drug addiction.
    • This article by the Rev. Tom Emanuel for Polygon goes into detail on how the film adaptations also resonated with Christians at the Turn of the Millennium, often in very different ways depending on their religious background. In his case, the series helped lead him into ministry with the United Church of Christ (a socially progressive denomination), its themes of mourning for the bygone Third Age of Middle-earth resonating with him in a post-9/11 society where it felt like the values and security he'd taken for granted had been lost. However, growing up in the '00s, he noticed that many of his equally devout but more conservative evangelical friends took away a very different message. At the height of The War on Terror, they focused on the clash between good and evil and saw the War of the Ring as symbolic of the conflicts that America was embroiled in, and its nostalgia for the Third Age resonated just as strongly with them amidst a rapidly changing society in which it felt to them that they were losing the culture war.
    • The Amazon show struggles with the Flip-Flop of God about Middle-earth being and not being a representation of modern-day world, or simply a fantasy world without ulterior parallelisms. Both lines of argumentation can be found regarding the casting choices, the usage of political allegory in the case of Numenorians fearing that the Elves are there to steal their trades and lands, and the debate around the perceived Irish stereotypes in the hobbits.
  • Alex Haley intended for Roots (and its better-known 1977 miniseries adaptation), an epic historical novel about generations of an African-American family from their ancestors in Africa to slavery in the Deep South to the Civil War to Haley himself in the present day, to get Black people more interested in exploring their heritage and ancestry as a way of rediscovering what had been lost due to slavery. That message wound up resonating far beyond the Black community and led to a wave of White Americans doing the same. In the wake of both the book and the miniseries, various European countries that sent large numbers of immigrants to the US saw waves of tourism from the descendants of those immigrants seeking to reconnect with the homelands of their ancestors, often called "roots people" once the locals figured out what had influenced many of them to start coming over. Today, the show Finding Your Roots, whose connection to the legacy of Roots is visible in its very title, features celebrity guests of all races and ethnicities.
  • Guy Gavriel Kay commented that, from South Korea to Poland to Quebec, people have been praising him for basing the plot of Tigana on their national history. For reference, he based it on Renaissance-era Italy. His writing philosophy is that history-inspired fantasy, among other things, lets a story have more of a universal appeal than mundane historical fiction would.
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a case of confusing applicability with allegory. The connection between The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the then-contemporary American political landscape was not even raised until 1963, when summer school teacher Henry Littlefield, while trying to teach the 1896 Presidential election and the turn-of-the-century Populist movement to bored history students, stumbled upon the idea of using the characters and events of The Wizard of Oz as metaphors to teach the concepts. He and his students made a number of connections — the Scarecrow represented the farmers, the Tin Woodman the factory workers, the Wizard was President Grover Cleveland or Republican presidential candidate William McKinley, the Cowardly Lion was Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, the silver shoes were the silver standard, the yellow brick road the gold standard, and so on — and Littlefield eventually wrote an article, "The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism", which was published in the magazine American Quarterly in 1964. Unfortunately, this was eventually taken to mean that L. Frank Baum wrote the book as an allegory for the political landscape at the turn of the century, despite the fact that Littlefield believed Baum had no political agenda when he wrote the book.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The 100 features a lot of political, cultural, and military conflicts that people have compared to World War II, the colonization of the Americas, modern generational conflicts, China's One Child policy, American slavery, and others. However, in most cases it's hard to make a one-to-one parallel line up, and even if you could, the show generally refuses to make definitive moral statements, preferring to have characters take conflicting stances on various issues, and leaving it up to the audience to decide who's right.
  • The Big Bang Theory is a show that runs with nerd stereotypes but does so in such a way that they don't all fall into the exact same character mold. As a result a lot of people are able to find themselves in the characters despite being on the extreme end of "smart people." Sheldon's rampant Schedule Fanatic and Obsessively Organized behavior lead many people to assume he is autistic, and there's much debate about whether he's a positive or negative portrayal of the condition. Leonard is timid and a pushover while trying to stay a Nice Guy. Howard is a Casanova Wannabe who has a hard time understanding why women aren't falling for his excitable energy. Raj is painfully shy around women to the point he can't even speak in their presence, though he later gets somewhat better. And Penny, the only non-nerd/non-genius of the cast, is easily overwhelmed by the nerd topics and science talk and often ends up the odd one out. It's covering this wide spectrum of personalities that lead many reviewers to speculate this is the reason behind the show's success.
  • Defiance: The backstory bears a resemblance to the European refugee crisis of 2015: an international coalition (Earth/the European nations) finds itself having to deal with large numbers of desperate people (the Votan/refugees and migrants). This is despite the fact that the show began in 2013. Of course that could be as much Values Resonance as this trope: The Syrian Civil War is far from the first war to displace a large number of war refugees, and nor will it be the last.
  • Though Doctor Who occasionally goes into straight-up political allegory, such as Seventh Doctor story The Happiness Patrol bashing Margaret Thatcher, the show generally stays on the applicability end of things-it's a Science Fiction Fairy Tale with an ever-changing cast and stories that can be set anywhere from Earth's distant past to a planet halfway across the universe, and the stories vary from horror to comedic, so anyone with any political, economic, social, ethical, or religious view can find something in the show's 50+ year history to back it up. And that's not even counting the colossal expanded universe.
  • Firefly creator Joss Whedon is a staunch liberal, but tried to keep the show apolitical outside of his usual Creator Thumbprints. This helped it attract a considerable following among American libertarians who see its Greater-Scope Villain, the Union of Allied Planets, as metaphorical for American "big government" liberalism, a subverted take on the United Space of America whose shining utopian cities are built on imperialism (with strong overtones of both The City vs. the Country and The American Civil War) and whose attempts at social engineering destroyed River Tam's life and also produced the Reavers. Whedon has stated that, if Firefly does have an anti-government message, that is because the story is essentially that of Captain Malcolm Reynolds, and it all comes from his perspective as a disaffected veteran who watched his side go down in defeat to a government that he personally considered evil.
  • Man Seeking Woman is a surrealist show that initially presents itself as a relationship drama but quickly goes down the path of Ancient Conspiracy, Alien Invasion, All Myths Are True and other fantastical events which shifts multiple times in a single episode, all treated with at best mild surprise. But there is a through-line that anchors all of these things into something relatable and comprehensible, instead of being absurd for its own sake there is an analogy at the heart of it all. Josh's mother inquiring about his love life is treated as actual Electric Torture, after being drugged and shackled to a chair with clamps to his nipples and testicles (in his childhood room, no less).

    Music 
  • The Beatles:
    • Paul McCartney wrote a song in support of the American Civil Rights Movement. He changed it from "Black Girl" to "Black Bird" in the spirit of this trope — in his words, "so you could apply it to your own problems".
    • Paul's mom was the inspiration for the "Mother Mary" lyric from "Let It Be". When asked if the song referred to the Virgin Mary, McCartney has typically answered the question by assuring his fans that they can interpret the song however they would like.
  • The song "Secret Love" from Calamity Jane. In the context of the film, it's about Calamity finally admitting her feelings for Wild Bill Hickok. Out of context, it's a woman singing about her secret love without saying a man's name or using male pronouns. This allows people to think that she really means "the love that dares not speak its name."
  • Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" is a song about a neglectful father whose son grows up to abandon him in his old age in turn. In Northern Ireland, however, the song is most associated with the 1993 anti-terrorism Public Service Announcement "Don't Suffer It, Change It", which puts a much darker twist on the lyrics. In it, a father in Belfast neglects his family to fight in The Troubles, gets sent to prison, watches his son follow in his footsteps, and eventually buries his son after he gets killed by a terrorist.
  • Dream Theater's songs are well known for being able to be interpreted in different ways.
  • A very dark example comes with Drowning Pool's "Bodies". It was originally written as a mosh-pit anthem, but its lyrics, particularly the chorus line of "let the bodies hit the floor", caused it to be interpreted by many as a mass-murder anthem about a man Going Postal. Association with real-life murderers who played the song,note  as well as its use for Enhanced Interrogation Techniques at the Guantanamo Bay prison, burned the alternative interpretation into people's minds, and now, when most people think of the song, they think it's about killing people. (The song was also used as the theme song of WWE's revival of ECW, until the Chris Benoit murder/suicide happened, at which point it was pulled.)
  • At the height of his "Voice of a Generation" fame, Bob Dylan was asked, "Do you think of yourself as more of a songwriter or a poet?" Dylan, without hesitation, replied laughing, "I only think of myself as a song and dance man."
  • The Eagles's song "Hotel California" has several interpretations due to the way the lyrics were written. Don Henley called it "our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles" and later reiterated "it's basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about." Still it's interpreted as an allegory of cocaine addiction, Satanism, or a mental hospital.
  • Gregory and the Hawk's "Boats and Birds" is about wanting to be there for someone you love, but accepting that one day they might want to leave you. Most people's first impression is that it's a song about one-sided romantic love, but others have pointed out that it could be a Parental Love Song about one's child leaving the nest.
  • Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends" was about the death of Billie Joe Armstrong's father when he was ten years old. However, as the song was released three years after the 9/11 attacks on their album American Idiot, a Concept Album rooted firmly in that era of American politics and culture, it became an anthem for people who opposed the Iraq War and were just waiting for the post-9/11 era to be over. It didn't hurt that the music video was themed around a young woman losing her Marine boyfriend in Iraq, which Armstrong found to be thematically appropriate given that the song was about loss. On a more minor level, the following year it also came to be associated with Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans on August 29, 2005 (two days before the song was released as the fourth single off the album) and whose aftermath stretched well into September and beyond, with Green Day performing the song at a benefit concert for the disaster.
  • Hedley's "On My Own" is a song about leaving somebody you have a bad relationship with and trying to find your own way in the world. It could be a Break-Up Song, a song about breaking off a toxic friendship, or one about running away from a household with Abusive Parents.
  • Imagine Dragons has produced several songs that encouraged multiple theories about their meanings. To quote the frontman:
    Dan Reynolds: I always like to leave art and music open to interpretation.
  • "Days" by The Kinks has two different interpretations, both from its writer Ray Davies. The first one is that Davies wrote it as a way of saying goodbye to his sister whom had moved to Australia. The second is that he was aware that the band would eventually break up and for all he knew, the song would be their finale. "Days" is a bittersweet song where the singer is bidding someone farewell and acknowledging that they must move on without them. It is a very common choice for a funeral for this reason.
  • Linkin Park's "One More Light" was written as a tribute to a longtime friend of theirs at Warner (Bros.) Records who had died of cancer, but after the band's frontman Chester Bennington killed himself shortly after it was released, it took on a tragic new meaning for many fans as an anti-suicide song.
  • Despite the lyrics and the video suggesting it is about a relationship, Lit lead singer A.J. Popoff claims that "Miserable" does not have to necessarily have to be about one. It could be about addiction or any other thing that you enjoy no matter how much it hurts you.
  • Many of Midnight Oil's songs are about the struggle of Australian Aborigines, but many of the lyrics could also apply to other indigenous peoples.
  • Pink Floyd's The Wall does not specify what happened to Pink after "The Trial", with the last track, "Outside the Wall", leaving Pink's fate unclear while delivering a message about how it's not all that great to isolate yourself before the album loops again. Pink Floyd left the ending intentionally unresolved, and it is up to the listeners to decide.
  • Freddie Mercury always refused to explain what "Bohemian Rhapsody" was about, and other members of Queen continued to do so after his death. Common interpretations include being about a murder, a Deal with the Devil, an exploration of Mercury's queer identity, or all of them at once.
  • Sheila on 7: "Lapang Dada" was written by Eross with his late father in mind, but it was purposefully written to be applicable to any kind of acceptance, which led to most interpreting it as I Want My Beloved to Be Happy, including the official music video.
  • The booklet from Taylor Swift’s 2017 album reputation tells listeners to draw their own conclusions about how much of it can be taken at face value and how much is exaggeration.
  • U2's music is known for its wide range of interpretations, be it religious or secular, universal or personal, literary or pop-cultural.

    Tabletop Games 

    Theatre 
  • The Book of Mormon, by the same guys who created South Park. Word from the creators is that they didn't want to insist that one particular lesson should be learned from the show, and prefer to leave it open for people to interpret any way they'd like. Even Matt Stone's own philosophy of "religion is a tool, not a rulebook" is presented rather ambiguously. In-universe, however, Elders Price and Cunningham conclude from their experiences that it's more important to have a religion that helps people improve their lives than to follow the dogma of an established church.
  • Bertolt Brecht: every single play, explicitly so. Especially the songs. To illustrate: the song "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera has been used as a sociopolitical allegory by Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Alan Moore, Lars von Trier, Dorothy Gambell, and Anarchy Comics. Brecht would have probably approved of all of the above, maybe not for their individual message but for the fact that he inspired later authors to think for themselves and appropriate his texts in their own social contexts, which is exactly what he wrote them for. He also applied this to all literature before him, though, stealing poems and plays left and right because he considered everything applicable and "common commodity". After being found out, he casually said he couldn't be bothered to spend time thinking about intellectual property when he had art to do, and besides, he expected (and wanted) people to do the same with his work.
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller. First staged in 1953 at the height of an anti-communist witch hunt, at the time Miller strenuously denied (in no small part to avoid getting blacklisted) that it was written as an allegory for the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which became notorious for their excessive zeal in rooting out communist sympathizers. That said, the metaphors were obvious to anybody willing to read between the lines, and he would later admit that it was indeed meant to be allegorical. When it was first staged in China in the early 1980s, however, people had just recovered from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, during which time Mao Zedong had a policy of stamping out the "Four Olds" (old customs, culture, habits, and ideas) that he deemed old, useless, and "anti-proletarian". This led to the destruction of a great deal of Chinese culture, as literature, paintings, temples, and classical architecture were burned and countless scholars, intellectuals, and other "revisionists" were murdered. The Chinese found similarities between the events of the Cultural Revolution and The Crucible, which is why the play received such a warm welcome there. The play was certainly a reaction to and commentary on American politics, but Miller dealt with it as a series of broad, timeless themes, and as such, very little can be read as directly symbolic of any contemporary event; rather, the content is archetypal in nature.
  • Cory Doctorow argues in this article that the village of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof can easily serve today as a metaphor for a dying social media platform. Just as the Jewish community in Anatevka is trapped there by their own social ties to each other, so are the users on many social media platforms, for the same reason. They long for someplace better than where they currently are where they don't have to put up with daily indignities, but if they leave, they risk losing the social ties that they've spent years cultivating as everybody goes their separate ways (to different American and European cities for the Jews, to other platforms for social media users). Only when things get unbearable do they finally pack up and leave, dissolving their community in the process because they can't agree on where to go.
  • William Shakespeare is a wonderful case for this. All of his plays have been subject to multiple interpretations throughout history and even argued over today on This Very Wiki. There's so little in the way of clear stage directions, or of the Bard's own writings, to be sure of what he thought of anything. For examples:

    Video Games 
  • Bloodborne, on top of adhering to the usual FromSoftware formula of having a strict Figure It Out Yourself relation in regards to its plot and lore, is crammed shock full with Symbolism, Motifs and Mind Screw, by far eclipsing its predecessors in all regards. As a result of all of the above, and many other things, the applicability is through the roof:
    • The game world could easily represent the corruptive effects Organized Religions and/or Science have on their surrounding societies. On the other hand, it could also represent the ailing body of someone struggling with a disease and their desperate prayers for salvation and search for a medical treatment that can cure them of their condition.
    • The lore and gameplay could be a brilliant case of Gameplay and Story Integration, or they could be a closely intertwined Post Modern reflection on what it takes to get through a FromSoft title.
    • The characters could be commentaries on the relation between gamers (the playable character), game creators (like FromSoft) who want to provide something special that the players will appreciate (much like the Plain Doll does), and big corporations (like Sony) who wish to enslave the gamers and take as much of their resources as they possibly can (much like what the Moon Presence does).
    • The game could be the single greatest tribute to the works of H. P. Lovecraft yet, or it could be the single greatest Take That! in regards to everything the man stood for as a person. Heck, it could be both.
  • Chihiro Fujisaki from Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc tends to be seen by Western fans as transgender, but his backstory is intended to address the issues of bullying and strict enforcement of gender roles in Japan, since Chihiro was ruthlessly bullied for his frail and unmanly physique and crossdresses to avoid the ridicule.
  • The (rather infamous) ending of Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony sparked a lot of discussion about its intent and meaning, leading to various different interpretations: Is the entire ending the author effectively torching the franchise by making it as alienating as possible, venting out his frustrations at feeling 'stuck' in writing the same type of story over and over? Is it a critique of the shallow consumption of violent fiction? Is it poking fun at the series' fanbase specifically? Is it none or all of the above? The fact that Kodaka, the main director of the series, went on to leave Spike Chunsoft after the release of the game to pursue his own projects only threw fuel to the fire.
  • Darkest Dungeon can be read as a Lovercraftian horror where the inspiration and source of the world's horrors is slowly revealed to be how much of a piece of garbage HP Lovecraft turned out to be. Not all of humanity or the universe itself. There were problems and horrors in the world all along, without question, but the Cosmic Horrors encountered throughout the game are all a direct result of him proving his complete disregard for anyone who isn't him.
  • Dark Souls: One common interpretation of the work is that it is about living and dealing with depression.
  • Word of God has stated that Final Fantasy X was made from a purely Japanese perspective, and that it was intended to criticize the hierarchal structure of Japanese religion. However, because the main villain is named "Sin" and the Church of Yevon has elements reminiscent of the Catholic Church, Western players tend to interpret it as anti-Christian, or at least critical of organized Catholicism.
  • A video by SolidArf on Gravity Rush and its sequel called "Gravity Rush: A Hierarchy of Sinking Worlds" interprets the looming threat of The Darkness as being representative of the real-world issues of climate change and ecological disaster, with the inequality highlighted throughout the game representing how poorer communities will be more devastated by it than the wealthier ones that have more time (literally in the case of the World Pillar and Eto) and resources, and yet refuse to help because of their own apathy or selfishness.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask:
    • Is the game an adventure or a mystery? The one that draws you into the story (or out of it) will directly have an effect on how much you enjoy the experience.
    • The dungeons and subplots, when played in order, line up with the five stages of grief. The entire plot is shaped by apocalyptic cataclysm coming on the fourth day. Is the game a metaphor for death, or even Link's Dying Dream? Or is it just a tale of a wanderer, in a far-off land, trying to do the best he can?
  • Nintendo called Metroid Prime a first-person adventure to specifically break up the "Is it a first person shooter, or an adventure game done in first person?" arguments that surrounded its launch. The exact same thing was done with Geist, another game that can be interpreted as a First Person Shooter or an adventure game done in first person.
  • Persona 4:
    • Naoto is a girl disguising herself as a boy. Her canon reason for this is to fit in the male-dominated work environment of the police, but wanting to change her gender and her Shadow almost attempting a dangerous sex-change operation makes her come across as a transgender man to some people.
    • Shadow Kanji's effeminate behavior is supposed to represent Kanji's interest in things that aren't considered masculine, but its led Western fans to wonder if he's actually a closet homosexual.
  • Persona 5 features societal problems that are shown from a primarily Japanese point of view, but that have also resonated with millennial players overseas: systematic corruption, the older generation not having any concern for the well being of young people today, and the fact that anyone with enough money, influence, and fame is essentially above the law.
  • Super Smash Bros., especially Brawl.
    • It's either a fighting game that stars as many Nintendo characters as possible (and a few 3rd-party guests), or it's one of the most interactive and wacky cartoons of all time.
    • Alternatively, it's the story of a boy growing up and having to put his toys away.
  • World of Warcraft: Sylvanas comes off as a rape/abuse survivor to many people, particularly women, with the way her being raised into undeath is often framed as a particularly obscene act. This is often reinforced by the way Sylvanas' treatment is so different from most Undead.
    • Arthas raised her entirely out of spite for putting up a fight against him, and kept her self-awareness in tact so that she could witness his destruction of her people and to torment her further. The narrative even frames it as if his decision to wipe out the elves is a supposed punishment for her defiance. Her body is even kept in an iron coffin for the specific purpose of preserving it so it can be used to further torture her. Arthas even went as far as to keep a vial of her blood among all of his supposedly "sentimental" trinkets.
    • Arthas' line "After all you've put me through woman, the last thing I'll give you is the peace of death" is delivered in an especially creepy way for many people.
    • Sylvanas is not only profoundly affected by what has happened to her, she is frequently blamed and looked down on for what happened to her, with many people claiming that she is simply an obscene mockery of who she once was and people who were her friends, family or colleagues in life treating her with disdain even before Battle for Azeroth. Many people, especially women, see the way she is treated by others and even her own sisters as being frighteningly similar to victim-blaming and gaslighting tactics used on victims of rape or abuse.
  • Yume Nikki is a game built around this. Is it an ambiguous character study? An allegory for Japan's social problems? A simple Wide-Open Sandbox that isn't supposed to be analyzed deeply? Kikiyama's official website suggests the latter, but its lack of plot and abundant symbolism make fans think otherwise.

    Western Animation 
  • 3Below:
    • The premise of the series is about two teenaged siblings who are forced to flee for their lives when a dictator stages a violent coup on their home planet, and get separated from their parents in the process. They wind up hiding out on Earth in the United States of America, struggling to adjust to an entirely new culture and way of life, which is made easier by them meeting and befriending one alien who's been living on Earth for a while now and gladly teaches them human customs. Some humans also discriminate against them due to being aliens in, depending on who's in the loop, either the foreigner or the extraterrestrial sense of the word. Through it all, the siblings try to hold onto hope they can return home, reunite with their parents, and the dictatorship over their home collapses. That story, without any of the alien sci-fi elements, can be easily applied to any refugee seeking asylum in better-off countries.
    • In the first episode Krel is marked as the king-in-waiting by his father in a public ceremony that was used by his ancestors for centuries, with his father telling him that he did this with his father. In the second episode, Aja is marked queen-in-waiting by Varvatos, who would be present in the normal ceremony but not in this role, and with only her brother looking on, and in a completely different setting without much of the ritual. This has a lot of applicability to trying to maintain customs and traditions after being displaced and trying to connect to a sundered heritage.
    • In the series finale, Krel decides to remain on Earth because he considers it his new home and wants to remain with the human friends he made. Meanwhile, Aja chooses to return to Akaradion-5 to accept the planet's throne and help repair the damage Morando had done during his rule. This reflects the two choices refugees have to make when the trouble in their home countries subside; either remain in their adopted homelands and continue with the lives they had created there or return to their original homelands to help rebuild them.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, much like The Lord of the Rings, have many historical inspirations without ever falling into straight allegories of any particular events.
  • Adventure Time has loads of this. Many of the plots and characters are ambiguous enough that multiple interpretations can be made. For example, "All The Little People" can be viewed as an affectionate jab at Shipping, a parody of the creative process, or a metaphor for puberty all at the same time. A lot of things about the show just depend on the viewer's personal interpretation.
  • Bobby Alcid Rubio wrote the Pixar short Float as an allegory for his struggle to accept his son's autism diagnosis. However, the son's ability to fly can be easily symbolic of any sort of difference that would set a child apart from other children and their parents' struggle to accept that their child doesn’t fall into the norm.
  • Lloyd in Space: Cindy the two-headed girl - where one head is nice and the other is aggressive - could be considered a parallel to someone with bipolar disorder or other mental illness.
  • In Steven Universe, Gems can perform a Fusion Dance to become a new individual. Word of God describes this as "the space between people becoming its own character," and has been used to represent romance, friendship, toxic relationships, a horrific war crime committed by the villains and sheer utility over the course of the series.

    Other/multiple media 
  • The entire Afrofuturism genre was born from this. Mark Dery's essay "Black to the Future", often held to be the genre's manifesto, notes that a lot of sci-fi tropes about aliens interacting with Earth — the aliens' technology, morality, and goals being wholly outside our understanding, humans being abducted and taken to the aliens' home planet for sinister purposes, the abductees being subjected to horrific medical experiments — are eerily similar to the experiences of Africans who were enslaved and shipped to the Americas to work on plantations at the behest of technologically advanced European colonialists. He also compared the Sci Fi Ghetto to the marginalization of Black art forms in 20th century America and Europe.


Top