What is the purpose of a reading?

In media analysis, we speak of “readings”, or interpretations of what’s going on in a work of (usually) fiction. Readings are not factual, they are fictional, and mutually contradictory readings can coexist. Naive readers often think that there’s just one right answer, which is to say whatever the author intended. However, authors can fail to fulfill their intentions, or else create something that goes in directions that they never intended. This is what’s meant by “death of the author”: a reading does not need to align with authorial intent in order to be a good reading.

But like a work of art, a reading can still be good or bad. And authorial intent is at least sometimes relevant to making that judgment. So let’s talk about a little reading that I saw a couple years ago that baffled me so much that I still think about it today.

In Gayming Magazine, there was an article talking about a queer reading of Elden Ring. I’m already on board, of course. The article started by observing that in a couple endings of the game, the player character becomes the “consort” of Queen Marika or Ranni the Witch. And generally, the game doesn’t really care whether the player character is male or female. So if you have a female player character, you can become the same-sex “consort” of a queen or a goth, and the game doesn’t really treat you any different for it. So that’s neat. That’s not the article that baffled me.

What baffled me more was a later article, “Elden Ring drops the ball for queer men” by Ty Galiz-Rowe. The article argued that the closest thing to a gay character in the game was Mohg. Mohg sort of a villain. He kidnaps the god-prince Miquella, hoping to become his consort and start a dynasty. Miquella does not appear to be an active participant in all this, as Miquella is perpetually young, and is seen as a single arm drooping out of a monstrous cocoon. Mohg is known as the Lord of Blood, because he communes with an outer god of cursed blood. Galiz-Rowe argued that Mogh steps into all sorts of negative gay stereotypes, from pedophilia to spreading diseased blood.

My response to this article was, yes you could adopt that particular reading. But… why would you?

But that had me thinking. Why was I satisfied with the reading that highlighted an implied same-sex relationship with Ranni, but not the reading that did the same with Mohg?

The difference between the two readings, is that one says something positive about the work, while the other one says something negative. The purpose of the positive reading is self-explanatory: sapphic goth moon witches are just neat. The purpose of the negative reading is less self-explanatory. Homophobic stereotypes obviously do not please me.

So that leaves me struggling to understand why Galiz-Rowe felt the reading was worth bringing up. I think he believes that this reading reveals something about authorial intent. Therefore, even if the reading isn’t pleasing, it’s worth looking it in the eye and criticizing it, so that creators might learn to do better. The thing is, I just don’t buy that this is an intentional reading. So to me, it’s like we just conjured homophobia out of thin air.  Isn’t that just an own goal?

I could be wrong, and Galiz-Rowe could be right. Maybe someone more familiar with Miyazaki or GRR Martin would be able to better guess their intentions. The point is, for this particular reading, authorial intent was relevant, and I needed to be convinced of authorial intent. Whereas, with Ranni the Witch, I really just don’t care if it was intentional or not.

More broadly, this made me reflect on the different purposes that a reading can serve. Some readings operate as a review or critique. How did you personally experience it? Do you think others would like it? What could future creators do better? Other readings operate like a work of art. They’re pleasing to look at, or they make some sort of artistic statement. And some readings operate like an informal sociological case study. What did the author or authors think? How was it understood by different audiences? What was the lineage of this story before and after the work in question?

Knowing the purpose of a reading can tell us what standard of evidence we ought to apply.


  1. says

    i didn’t read that article, but am familiar enough with elden ring to think, that could be an accurate read of the author’s unconscious bias, at least. even if being hectored on that doesn’t reach the author or impress them, it could help nudge the thoughtfulness of authors who might be at risk of carrying those themes forward uncritically in their own writing? maybe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *