The real meaning of “Meta”

20 Feb

Okay, this is exactly why I get so annoyed when fandom refers to the writing of any commentary on a show or book that isn’t itself story-telling (i.e., fan-fiction), as “meta”. Witness: last night’s episode of Once Upon a Time.

In a previous episode, the Mayor (AKA Evil Queen in the Fairytaleverse) found the “Once Upon a Time” book her son Henry had hidden from her. He has carried this prop around for the entire season. It tells the true story of everyone’s real lives back in the Fairytaleverse. Its very existence as a prop on the television show OUAT is an example of “meta”–when a story breaks the fourth wall in that subtle, non-intrusive way, and exposes itself as a story.

The Mayor destroys the book. Or tries to. But then, lo, a newcomer comes to town. He has a mysterious box. In the box, we discover, is a typewriter. This identifies him as a writer, and a more or less contemporary writer at that. Now one aspect of the OUAT television show they have mentioned repeatedly is that these characters, ostensibly modern, contemporary people, are trapped in the town of Storybrooke. They never leave, not because they can’t, necessarily*, but because no one really has a mind to. Likewise, outsiders entering the town is a strange thing. Other than Emma Swan, who as we know, is not really an outsider at all–being the biological daughter of two residents of Storybrooke–no one is new. It is a bubble-prison of the Mayor’s making*.

This week, we saw the writer repairing the tattered remnants of the story book–drying them off, weaving them back into a proper binding, then leaving it for Emma to find. This shows that the writer is, in fact, the Writer, a self-insertion of the series writers themselves, entering the story and mending it, mending hope that the spell will be broken and their old lives returned. It is absolutely necessary to the concept of “meta” that the writer be an outsider to the town. He is not part of the story. Not part of Storybrooke. He is outside the story, outside the book, mending it, weaving it.

* I found the previews for the next episode interesting. We have seen a lot of imagery of cars broken down on the road at the edge of town. I wonder if it is, indeed, possible for the characters to actually leave, should they get a mind to. It seems they can try, but something stops them there at the edge. Or, more to the point, someone.

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8 Responses to “The real meaning of “Meta””

  1. scrollgirl February 20, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    Heh. Fair enough. I use “meta” to mean both real meta and “analysing a TV show”, even though I know the latter is incorrect, because that’s how I signal to other people in fandom who use it that that’s what my post is about. Yes, I’ve caved to peer pressure. *sheepish*
    I can see how it’d be like nails on a chalkboard to you, though.

  2. scrollgirl February 20, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    Heh. Fair enough. I use “meta” to mean both real meta and “analysing a TV show”, even though I know the latter is incorrect, because that’s how I signal to other people in fandom who use it that that’s what my post is about. Yes, I’ve caved to peer pressure. *sheepish*

    I can see how it’d be like nails on a chalkboard to you, though.

  3. neshaffer February 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    Well, I’m working on another essay at the moment that I will have to market in fandom as “meta” whether I want to or not. One must needs communicate.

  4. neshaffer February 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    Well, I’m working on another essay at the moment that I will have to market in fandom as “meta” whether I want to or not. One must needs communicate.

  5. yoshimi February 22, 2012 at 3:10 am #

    I just watched the ep, and kind of laughed when I saw the car stranded at the town line – didn’t that same thing happen to Cinderella – and I speculated as to whether anyone in Storybrooke has ever wondered why so many accidents happened right there, and, by extension, why so many people happen upon these accidents (see, e.g., kathryn’s boyfriend), and if they themselves would have had accidents had they not happened upon the accidents.
    which is all to say that i think it’s a rather lazily written show, but i watch it just the same. the inclusion of the writer harkens back to fables for me, although everyone in both camps seems to have disavowed any connection, so it doesn’t seem all that surprising.

  6. yoshimi February 22, 2012 at 3:10 am #

    I just watched the ep, and kind of laughed when I saw the car stranded at the town line – didn’t that same thing happen to Cinderella – and I speculated as to whether anyone in Storybrooke has ever wondered why so many accidents happened right there, and, by extension, why so many people happen upon these accidents (see, e.g., kathryn’s boyfriend), and if they themselves would have had accidents had they not happened upon the accidents.

    which is all to say that i think it’s a rather lazily written show, but i watch it just the same. the inclusion of the writer harkens back to fables for me, although everyone in both camps seems to have disavowed any connection, so it doesn’t seem all that surprising.

  7. neshaffer February 22, 2012 at 3:25 am #

    “Lazy” as in using the same plot device over and over, I presume. Or perhaps trying to send a message to what they presume is a less-than-observant viewership: “pay attention to this little detail, kids!”
    Well, it is entertaining.

  8. neshaffer February 22, 2012 at 3:25 am #

    “Lazy” as in using the same plot device over and over, I presume. Or perhaps trying to send a message to what they presume is a less-than-observant viewership: “pay attention to this little detail, kids!”

    Well, it is entertaining.

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