Audience Interpretation vs. Creator’s Intention

So recently, we’ve been told that Hello Kitty has been fooling us all for 40 years. Despite the cat ears, the white fur, the paws, the cat nose, and the whiskers, she is, in fact, a little girl.

Or something like that. I’m kind of late to the party and now people are saying different things. Apparently, someone from Sanrio (the company that made Hello Kitty) insisted that Hello Kitty wasn’t a cat, but a little girl. Her name is Kitty White, and she lives in London, and she has a pet cat, but she herself is not a cat.

Despite, you know… obviously being a cat. The main argument this representative seems to have is that Hello Kitty doesn’t walk on all fours like a cat, so therefore, she is not a cat. The effects of being a cartoon character don’t seem to apply, I guess.

But now someone else from Sanrio is saying that she’s the personification of a cat. Which, I’m only assuming in this context, means that she’s a little girl, but in the form of a cat character. Like how Spongebob is a little boy/manchild in the form of an undersea sponge. Or basically anything else. Because she’s a cartoon character. As someone that grew up almost exclusively on cartoons, I can confidently say this follows fairly common cartoon rules. I think anyone could look at Hello Kitty and see that she’s supposed to be a little girl, but… you know. A little girl cat.

I don’t know. I feel like something was lost in translation here. Doesn’t matter. Let’s talk about audience interpretation vs. creator’s intention.

So I don’t know about you, but sometimes I come across a book, or a movie, or a TV show, or a whatever form of storytelling, and there’s enough room for me to make my own interpretation. And sometimes people have these big discussions about all of their different interpretations, and it’s great because this something is influencing a bunch of people to think. And it doesn’t matter if there’s a definite answer or canon to go along with these particular stories, because the audience is smart enough to come up with their own explanation, and despite arguments about which interpretation is “correct,” it doesn’t matter. It’s a personal belief, and that’s all that should really count.

And then sometime later, maybe during an interview or Q&A panel, the creator will reveal his or her intentions while creating said work. And sometimes it answers questions. And sometimes it creates controversy. Everyone who had been spending so much time finely crafting theories and interpretations are now outraged that the creator, who should know all of the “real” answers, decided to lay out the “facts” long after the original work had been published.

But here’s the thing: even if an author, or director, or musician, or any type of artist decides to tell the public what he or she intended their creation to mean… it doesn’t always matter. Your audience may see things the way you wanted them to, or they may not. And yes, at times it can be very frustrating. But it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes your audience can open you up to possibilities that make your work better.

For example, I wrote this 28-page short story for my advanced fiction workshop in college. I worked so hard on it, slaving away during all of my spring break, hoping to move my classmates and professor with this amazing story of a young boy’s personal realization and growth as he decided to start thinking and acting for himself. Through a series of interactions with the same, familiar people he’d dealt with every day of his life, he made a decision to leave home and see the world for himself. I thought it was perfect.

It was easily the worst story I’d produced in all of my college career (of the ones I’d grown attached to, anyway). At the time, I didn’t see it. I was just mad people weren’t seeing it the way I was. Maybe it was because I’d been going through a personal change at the time and wanted to communicate my feelings on it through the story. Maybe it was because I’d worked longer on it than most of my other stories, and I was frustrated it turned out to be so terrible. But people didn’t get what I was going for. They started making up their own theories about what the story was about (or rather, should have been). One of the motifs I used in the story was the woods (exploring the unknown; I know, so original) and various people warning the main character not to go in them. My professor had the idea to turn this “deep,” “symbolic” part of the story into a gateway that led somewhere entirely different. He had the idea of turning the story into a type of Truman Show piece. My main character should have went into the woods, only to find the same life he was so tired of was actually staged. Looking back on it, this would have been a great way to excuse the awful blandness of all the characters. Too bad I was too stubborn to take his suggestions to heart. He even E-mailed me later that day, apologizing if I took his criticisms too close to heart (I was usually fairly good at taking in negative feedback; I guess I couldn’t hide it that day).

What was my point again? Oh yeah. Just because I intended the story to be some amazing, coming of age masterpiece doesn’t mean that’s how my audience perceived it. And that’s okay, because honestly, I think my professor’s reimagining of the assignment would have been a much better short story. Sometimes, and obviously not all the time, but certainly sometimes, an individual’s own interpretation of a particular work may have more weight and meaning than the creator’s. To the individual, anyway. And sometimes, that’s all that really matters.

Or something like that. I know a lot of ideas were thrown around here today. I may not have had as much of a point as I thought I did. Oh well. Food for thought, anyway. Something to keep in mind the next time you want to disagree with what someone says about a book or movie or whatever, despite what the creator said.


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