Written by Andrew McGee
With dozens of enticing blue links per paragraph, leading to all manner of storytelling devices and plot conventions, it’s easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole (oh hey, that’s a trope too). For some people, it can be quite fascinating to see how these recurring ‘tropes’ are employed and subverted across a range of narrative mediums, from anime to literature to tabletop gaming. The site can be enjoyed by fans of all forms of fiction and storytellers alike, while its semi-colloquial tones staves off the dryness of Wikipedia. You can also look at a series and its tropes in isolation, so you can pinpoint the moment Sherlock disappeared up its own arse, for example.
The thing is though, it’s all pretty trivial, and there’s a real risk of over-relying on these made up definitions and hindering criticism rather than encouraging it.
The meaning of a ‘trope’ can be summed up with the question "you know that thing where…?”. Tropes differ from clichés, in that they're not inherently negative or viewed as derivative or lazy; as the site itself explains:
“A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell. We collect them, for the fun involved.
Tropes may be brand new but seem trite and hackneyed; they may be thousands of years old but seem fresh and new. They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience.”
Yet like my article on the over-reliance and misinterpretation of Rotten Tomatoes, I’d like to talk about the growing trend of TVTropes.org being referenced offhandedly in online discussions and the potential ramifications, as well its questionable content and the effects upon how we perceive art and media. Perhaps I’m making a big deal over nothing, but with apparently over 7 million views per month and rising, and being the 7th most visited literature-related site (ahead of Pottermore), it’s bound to have some sort of effect on how people consume media.
In short, these tropes are not definitive.
They exist as self-contained labels and phrases, explaining tropes by heavily referencing other tropes on the site.
After reading an article or watching a review, let’s say of a film, I’ll naturally scroll down to the comments (unless it’s YouTube...) or visit a public forum to see what other mere commoners have to say. To be clear, I’m not expecting expert analysis on Reddit, rather I’m just interested in discussions from varying perspectives.
But for a good while now, I’ve been noticing a trend of new terms slipping into these discussions, and I’m sure you can guess their origin. Tropes from TVTropes are casually referenced as if they're definitive, known terms. I wouldn’t mind if the site is explicitly linked, but it usually isn't.
The final incentive to writing this was coming across a word I didn’t know, again on a public forum. “Cool, a new word” I thought, and proceeded to Google it. Of course, the results which popped up were from TV Tropes, not the Dictionary. That word was “anvilicious”, which, by their own definition, means to convey a message heavy-handedly, as if it were an anvil being dropped.
The fact that there are plenty of synonymous words - unsubtle, blatent, preachy, heavy-handed – begs the question of why it should be used in the first place, putting the reader in a position where they need to look up what should be a common phrase. However, a search for #Anvilicious on Twitter or the use of the word in literature and film blogs will come up with a fair few results of it being used naturally in prose.
Yes, it’s pretty harmless, and new words slipping into our common lexicon is natural in the evolution of language (but literally not being used literally really bothers me).
There’s plenty of precedent for new words originating from the internet, from technical terminology to words like “sonder”, coined by one person on their Tumblr ‘The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows'. It seems to have gained traction online over the years, and who’s to say whether it is or isn’t a word? The Dictionary, generally, but hundreds of words are added to it every month, and if it’s a step closer to popularising complex concepts and emotions in one word like German, then I’m all for it.
TVTropes has its own active forum, and after a look around my conclusion is blimey they take this seriously. Anvils seem to be a common theme so far, so here’s a discussion about the misuse of the trope 'Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped". I’m certainly not going to criticize users, or "tropers", as they're apparently called, for having an interest in storytelling and keeping up an entertaining site, but I did notice a concerning tendency in the writers' threads. Many posters explain their stories, or evaluate others, using the tropes of the sites as the building block for their own narratives, which effectively reduces narrative to a formula of simple tropes.
Connecting and cataloguing various pieces of media together seems like a cool idea in principle, and to an extent it is, but it ultimately results in the oversimplification and homogenisation of art and its concepts, with minute or obvious details being overblown into a trope or complex themes being reduced to a buzzword.
It dissects a piece of art or entertainment into digestible and inconsequential tidbits, completely isolating them from their own individual context, as an entire piece of work or auteurship with all its carefully considered intricacies. Aspects of storytelling are vague enough that TVTropes would make it seem like Finding Nemo and A Clockwork Orange share common ground by sharing the vague trope of ‘Adult Fear’.
The final problem with the site is the subjectivity of these definitions. As it states, There’s No Such Thing as Notability. Anyone can write anything if it fits, and historically humans tend to disagree on what’s right and wrong. But how about this one? Sticking to anvilicious, because it’s what we know now and I can’t be bothered to go through the thousands of other tropes, Mad Max: Fury Road is listed as being guilty of this implicitly negative trope. The reason? Feminism.
On the other hand, the site does a commendable job of calling out the recurring stereotypical or damaging tropes, like the racism of The Token Minority or Asian and Nerdy. Even then though, it’s dodgy territory as to what gets included. Take the gaming category of the Scary Black Man trope – Coach from Left 4 Dead 2 is listed and he’s the cuddliest thing in the game, while you never even see Emile’s face from Halo: Reach! Being a six foot death machine with a skull carved onto your helmet is probably the scary part, not his ethnicity. That’s just from a quick scan of one sensitive topic, I’m sure there are plenty more questionable inclusions. Some tropes just seem sexist in themselves without the justification of pointing out the offense, like the dehumanising nature of “The Chick”, which redundantly seems no different from the more positive trope of “The Heart” mentioned on the same page.
A notable example which went mainstream not long ago was the ‘Mary Sue’ trope, a term which originated long before the internet but generally makes me cringe. It came to prominence not long after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when screenwriter Max Landis accused Rey of being too good at everything and therefore a ‘Mary Sue’. The internet’s already had plenty to say on that subject matter, but it’s one of the most common ones which seems to be parroted about, and I specifically remember seeing it applied to Clara from Doctor Who many times.
But besides the inherent sexism of the phrase (because it could easily apply to the majority of male characters, from Luke Skywalker to Batman to Harry Potter), it reveals the major problem with using these tropes as shorthand; as a university tutor might scribble next to it, “this needs unpacking”.
Something like “Mary Sue” is so loaded with varying meanings, not to mention real life controversies in this case, that it ends up blocking further arguments. Rather than encouraging critical thinking, as TVTropes has the potential to do, tropes become lazy shorthand for those who can’t be bothered to fully engage in critical analysis, with no thought or discussion beyond the limits of what the trope entails.
TVTropes is simply a fun website. It can certainly aid critical thinking and it’s a fun way to nerd out over your favourite TV series or books, but in the end I believe it’s arbitrary, not looking beyond the mere trivial mechanics of a story and its characters. I don’t think the site has a place in real critical discussion, and I hope I won’t have to keep looking up words which lead me to it.
Anyway, I've just found the Red Dwarf page and it's endless - maybe one more click...