Oi! Spaceman: A Podcast

Speculative Fiction, Intersectional Feminism, and Dirty Jokes

Tropes Versus Narrative Part 1

Anita Sarkeesian has a new video up, and it is (like the others) quite good at doing exactly what it says on the label — applying a bit of basic feminist/social justice to video games: a medium that has yet to receive quite the level of critical analysis its place in the culture deserves. Watching these videos (especially the early ones) it’s amazing that this got Sarkeesian the level of vitriol and hatred it did: nowhere to be found are the kind of systemic criticisms of video game culture that would be expected from a firebreathing and card-carrying “radical feminist”; nowhere do we find even the snark of an Amanda Marcotte or a Melissa McEwan. Sarkeesian is approachable, clever, often funny, has clearly done her research, and (for the most part) is making the kinds of obvious, straightforward, “feminism 101” kinds of arguments that are simply par for the course in other media.

(An aside: so why does she get the hate she does? Partly it’s because of a “perfect storm” element that led to GamerGate last year regarding the increasingly audible female/minority voices in culture in general, and the backlash against such from the ridiculous (and ridiculously-named) “Men’s Rights Activists.” I suspect a larger issue is that video game culture –which I have a limited experience with, mostly from afar and only sporadically– is especially hidebound and reactionary to such ideas, possibly due to the average age of the modern self-described “gamer.”)

The incredibly strong reaction towards Sarkeesian actually makes it difficult to treat her work in a systematic and critical way; any criticism of her videos must almost by definition come with a heaping portion of denouncement of her haters, and the general volume of the conversation around her makes it nearly impossible to treat her work outside of it. (Sarkeesian is aware of this, no doubt, and in her videos commonly speaks to larger cultural issues that seem specifically pointed at the GamerGate crowd.) It’s not that I have any particular issue with the work in general, beyond a quibble here or there, except a desire for it to be expanded and deepened. Sarkeesian is doing the very fine work of producing a series of videos laying out in some detail the basic and uncontroversial feminist lens through which video games should be seen, and I hope she makes a hundred more videos just like the one posted above.

That said, the most obvious criticism I’ve seen of Sarkeesian’s work is exactly that: that it is simplistic, overly broad, takes material out of contest, and ultimately superficial. To which my response is pretty much: “Well, it’s an offshoot of a series called ‘Tropes Versus Women,’ right? What did you expect?”

I was first exposed to the idea of the trope through Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary entries like “The Climbing Killer,” which states from his Hollywood Homicide review, “that dependable chase cliche in which the killer climbs to a high place, from which he cannot escape unless he can fly.” Ebert penned dozens if not hundreds of these little bon mots, based on the thousands of movies he watched in his lifetime, and the website TV Tropes has taken that idea and run with it, producing a highly entertaining wiki collecting many, many similar examples from all forms of media.

A trope, then, is at best a pattern seen across various works, and at worst a boring cliche. Savvy audiences, especially those goosed by conversation about tropes, see a Climbing Killer or an Amateur Sleuth or a Girl Next Door or a Magic Negro and, well, they know what to expect. They want their expectations to be tested in some way, either to be fulfilled properly, to be reversed, or in some other way acknowledged. Knowledge of genre tropes is a fine and wonderful thing, of course — no writer wants his or her work to be derivative and plodding. But since everything is a trope of one kind or another, and these tropes are specifically those things which are common across different stories/media/genres, any analysis relying primarily on tropes will be almost by definition an overly-broad, superficial one.

(This is where I make one more defense of Sarkeesian before leaving her behind for this entry — it is absolutely a valuable and perhaps essential thing for a three-video series detailing the Damsel in Distress in video games to exist. Many of the tropes Sarkeesian examines are so prevalent –and yet so damaging– that much of the value of her video series is basically just stringing together so many examples in one place to demonstrate how hollow and silly relying on these tropes really is.)

And if an over-reliance on tropes can lead to superficial analysis, it sure as hell can lead to superficial writing. One of the lasting effects of the “indie revolution” in film of the 1990s was the acknowledgement that the works themselves should be genre-savvy, and in particular many comedic works built their entire structures on acknowledging, then subverting, expected tropes. (Kevin Williamson’s Scream series is perhaps the biggest example here.) This is the birth of “meta” as a writing concept and, done cleverly, the effects can be sublime. Mass entertainment in the second decade of the twenty-first century has so thoroughly embraced the idea of self-reflexivity that it’s virtually the water we swim in today: Captain America “gets that reference” in The Avengers, video games regularly poke fun at their own limitations and conventions, comic book character Deadpool is built around the concept of making the fourth wall superfluous, and Community gave us an entire character whose existence was predicated on oversimplifying life into a series of interconnected metatextual references.

The problem with all this, as I see it in a “you kids get off my lawn” sort of way? That two decades after Scream, after even the parody series of Scary Movie has devolved into self-parody and cultural irrelevance, is that manipulation of tropes should be a starting point, not an endpoint, in any well-written media piece whose characters and events we should at all take seriously. Abed is not just a delivery system for jokes about 80s movies; his hyperfocus on these meta elements is eventually shown to be a product of deep disaffection with the world and possibly a non-neurotypical ideation. Buffy started as an idea of a reversal of the trope of the Blonde Girl in the Alley, but the series eventually spent seven years exploring the titular character and the world in which she lived. Django Unchained isn’t just a blaxploitation slavery flick, but a deeply fascinating origin story for an African-American hero defeating his chains by his own terms, with the embedded harsh criticism of the way white culture –then and now– considers the legacy of slavery.

The attentive listener of the podcast will probably expect that I’ll now move the topic once again to the oh-so-clever Steven Moffat. I suppose that’s a genre trick of my own. But this post has certainly gone on long enough already, and Moffat probably deserves a nice long analysis through the trope lens all on his own. So stay tuned for that next week.

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