Any writer (indeed all of us) will have a way of thinking about the world which will affect the way that they write. This way of thinking will be created by the way we are brought up by our family, our schooling, the society in which we live, the movies we watch, etc… It can help to think about this way of thinking as a series of biases, prejudices or assumptions about how the world is or should be. A writer’s novel, poem or play will tend to support or rely on this set of assumptions.
It is important to realise that the writer’s way of thinking about the world will usually match up with that of everyone else in his society. If it does not, that writer will often be classified as mad or unusual and will tend to be unpopular and find it difficult to publish their work. Notice that ‘mad’ only really means not sharing the same set of beliefs or assumptions that the majority of other people do.
When we are reading a text we make use of the fact that we share a way of thinking or set of assumptions with the author to make sense of the text. Often the author will have left gaps in their text that our shared set of assumptions fill for us. For example, how often do texts go to the trouble of explaining that people who rob, murder or rape are the bad guys? Almost never. Why? Because it’s obvious. However, this is just part of our shared way of thinking; a shared assumption that we have made. It is not necessarily the case that robbery or murder are bad things; it is possible to imagine a world where they are positive attributes – a warrior culture perhaps or, in fact, any country when it is at war.
Following this, the Dominant Reading of a text will be a reading that follows, supports or does not question the way of thinking shared by the writer and the society in which they write.
A Resistant Reading, then, will be one that challenges the biases, prejudices or set of assumptions shared by the writer and the society in which they write.
Most of the time when we read we produce a Dominant Reading. However, if we want to say something different, interesting or controversial about a text we can choose to develop a resistant reading. This involves a refusal to read according to the conventional rules, choosing instead, to draw attention to the gaps, silences and contradictions in the text.
The aim of a resistant reading is usually to highlight beliefs and values which are normally taken for granted in every day life but which may not actually be true if we view the world from a different way of thinking.
e.g. A resistant reading of Cinderella follows:
The story actually reveals the shallowness of men who judge women solely on the basis of physical attractiveness. A man who will marry a woman on the basis of a few hours of dancing is unlikely to have made a sensible decision regarding a long term commitment and is likely to leave Cinderella as quickly as he married her if someone with more dainty feet comes along. No wonder most of the women in the story are bitter. The story also represents a woman’s physical appearance as a commodity for her to use to gain social status and wealth.
Obviously this is not how we are meant to read Cinderella but if you think closely about the story it can make sense to read it in this way.