Most of the time, tropes are neither inherently good nor bad. They’re tools that can be used well or poorly. But that’s not always the case. Some tropes are just bad, and that’s what we’re talking about today – specifically, the tropes we dislike the most! We discuss why those tropes don’t work, why stories would be better without them, and what to do instead. Also, a quick history lesson on the propaganda tricks of the Soviet Union.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Cindi at YourPodScribe.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Opening song]
Chris: Welcome to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: …and not Wes.
Oren: What? Not Wes?
Chris: I know! Wes is gone. That means we can talk about the literary genre, give everybody the dirt on how it has downsides.
Oren: Yeah. Now that Wes isn’t here, we get to talk smack about literary genres and about whether copyedit has a space in it, and at what time. And he can’t tell us we’re wrong.
Chris: Also all adverbs end in l y.
Oren: Literally all of them.
Chris: All of them. [Laughter] Oh no!
Oren: That’s all I really got, honestly. Wes is hard to disagree with.
Chris: It’s true he’s unreasonably reasonable. So before we get going, just want to let listeners know that we could use more volunteers to transcribe the podcast. If you’d like to give the gift of the Mythcreant podcast to the non-listening Internet, just go to Mythcreants dot com slash transcribe [https://mythcreants.com/transcribe/]. Thank you, that really helps us out. Otherwise, we couldn’t do transcripts for all our podcasts.
Oren: We do appreciate everyone who has already volunteered. You guys have made a big difference.
Chris: All right, on to the topic this week. It is our least favorite topic.[Laughter]
Oren: No wonder we saved it for when Wes wasn’t here.
Chris: We’re going to be talking about our least favorite tropes, which is probably actually our most favorite topic because we love talking about things we hate.
Oren: Accurate. We don’t have Wes here with all that pesky positivity. None of that.
Chris: You want to start us off?
Oren: Yeah, okay. So this isn’t my most hated of tropes, but it is an interesting one in that it has to do with disabilities being represented as a superpower in stories. Now, academically, this is always something I’ve understood. Maybe not always, you know, for a while I’ve known this, I’ve understood the argument. I’ve heard disability advocates talk about how it erases their experience and makes them feel bad. And I’m like, okay academically, I absolutely agree, sounds good.
Chris: It’s really not intuitive to a lot of storytellers though. They think they’re doing favors or something by showing disabilities as superpowers.
Oren: Right. I get why people would think that. I used to think that too. I understand why people would think that. But recently, and this wasn’t like a conversion moment for me, because like I said, I’ve already academically accepted this. It’s just not been personal before. So I’m dyslexic and recently on an episode of Star Trek Discovery, we revealed that Spock is also dyslexic, which is cool. Spock’s like one of my favorite Star Trek characters and he’s dyslexic. Awesome. Dyslexic like me. Super cool. And then they’re like, because he’s dyslexic, he’s immune to the time madness. And it’s like what? [Laughter] Hang on. What?
Chris: Well, you know Oren, when you get up in the morning you’re like, gosh; it’s so nice that I’m immune to the time madness.
Oren: Yeah. The time madness. So first of all, Star Trek Discovery has time madness where if you understand the flow of time, you start to act weird. It’s just a very strange trope to begin with, especially because like, when they show us what it is, they show us through the vision of someone who is perceiving the time stream. It’s like a bunch of random images and it’s like, okay, I don’t really believe that that would make someone start acting weird and irrationally. Maybe it would be a little confusing, but whatever. And they’re like, ah but see Spock’s immune to it because he’s dyslexic. And so they, I don’t know, see time backwards already or something. And I’m like, man, I just can’t spell, what do you want from me?
It’s like, now it’s weird because it was cool that Spock was dyslexic. I liked it. But now that’s clearly not what I experienced as a dyslexic person, nor would I think any dyslexic person experiences. Although obviously dyslexia manifests differently in different people and there’s some evidence that it might be tied to creative thinking, but it’s not really clear to me how strong that is or if it’s just that, because I’m bad at spelling, I focused on being creative instead. It’s not really clear which one it is. But in any case, certainly there’s nothing in there that makes me feel like I would be resistant to the flow of time. It’s just completely random. It doesn’t even seem kind of related, you know? It’s like, hey; this guy’s got a broken leg, so he’s immune to acid.
Chris: Does it feel like people are just saying weird things about you?
Oren: Yeah, it does. Like I’m some weird unknowable enigma. And…
Chris: You’ve been exoticized.
Oren: Yeah, a little bit. Yeah. And it takes a lot to do that to a young white guy. But apparently you can if you try hard enough.
Chris: [Laughter] Oh No.
Oren: And to be clear, I’m sure that the writer’s heart was in the right place. I’m sure they meant well by doing this. They just don’t understand that it’s awkward and now I’m in this position of being, well I want to see myself on screen, but it’s wrong. And so that drains the enjoyment out of it. But also I still feel if I complain people will be like, why are you complaining? Don’t you want to see yourself on screen? And I mean, yeah, but not like that. And, at least with me, because I, as aforementioned white dude, I have plenty of other representation, right? Not as specific as having dyslexia. But if I don’t like this one dyslexic character, I can identify with who knows how many others, right? Because they share other traits with me. Other people aren’t always that lucky. But it was not a great feeling when I was watching that episode and it went from Spock’s dyslexia to dyslexia lets you ignore time magic. And I was like, oh, okay, sure.
Chris: That’s part of the thing that really makes it sting right? Is you think there’s a character that represents you and then they make it weird.
Oren: Yeah. It’s just, that’s not what dyslexia is. Like even a little bit.
Chris: We’re supposed to enjoy this and it was disappointing instead.
Oren: Yeah, I don’t like it. And obviously there are worse cases. My case is fairly mild in comparison to the way that some people’s disabilities are portrayed. Like anything even kind of related to schizophrenia in fiction is terrible and that’s way worse. So obviously mine is fairly mild but it was still irritating.
Chris: It’s okay. You can say that you don’t like it without, you know, there’s always somebody that has it worse. Right?
Oren: Yeah, that’s true.
Chris: So I’ll say one of mine…
Oren: Yeah, please do.
Chris: And this one is annoying me right now because we’re watching The Dark Crystal and it’s a kind of complicated trope, I’m just calling it the friend zoned dork. The recipe for this is that you have a hot girl and a guy that’s, you know, at least packaged is not attractive. In some cases like Xander and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, he’s still actually quite attractive, but we’re pretending he’s not. Many other times he is just genuinely not attractive. He’s usually presented as, you know, a dork or socially awkward or something like that.
Oren: Kind of Slovenly and gross.
Chris: Sometimes. And the hot girl and this not attractive guy are friends and he’s into her, she seems either oblivious or uninterested and the audience is supposed to sympathize with the guy and feel bad for him that she doesn’t like him. And sometimes it’s used to set up a romance like in Disenchanted.
Oren: Or Artemis is another one where they did that.
Chris: So far, The Dark Crystal, it’s happening with Hup and Deet, but there isn’t really a sign there’s a romance there. Might just be there to set up. Or in Xander’s case Xander never gets together with Buffy right? But the point is that we’re supposed to have sympathy for this guy. And again, sometimes even a romance happens. So yeah, I hate this trope so much because it sets up a really sexist, double standard by which women are always expected to look super good, but we’re supposed to not be shallow, only when it comes to a guy’s looks right? The idea is that she should be able to overlook that he’s not attractive, while at the same time, the woman never gets that. In most cases, the guy is a self insert character, often times we have a female protagonist that is often being downgraded to a love interest by this trope where suddenly it’s about making this woman protagonist, like the male self insert character.
Oren: Yeah. It was so weird in Artemis because at least in Dark Crystal people like Hup. Hup’s a great character and I see why everyone loves him, so I can see why this might seem a little weird to some people. It’s like how could you object to a romance with Hup?
Chris: I like Hup. I don’t agree with the treatment of having, like, what is the point of having him look after Deet like that and be like, awww, why don’t I get the girl? I think he’s otherwise a great character in the show. Definitely needs podling characters. Honestly, I think it should have more.
Oren: But it was like even weirder in Artemis because unlike Hup, the guy in Artemis whose name I don’t remember has basically no admirable traits. He’s just like a weird creepster and it’s like there’s nothing to indicate that the main character is into him even a little bit. And so it just really feels like he was suddenly the main character getting rewarded with a girl.
Chris: Right. I mean a lot of these cases it does feel like there’s a straight male behind the scenes that is basically co-opting the story to serve his personal interest at the cost of the women who are supposed to like this story. And the other thing, and this gets back to this issue, is I definitely think it blatantly encourages male entitlement, which is what the whole friend zone thing is about. The idea that some guy feels entitled to a romance with a woman, right? And but oh, I’m in the friend zone.
Oren: A special term for, I guess she wasn’t interested.
Chris: [Laughter] In both the cases, I mean Hup does spend a lot of time, effort, protecting Deet. And in Artemis, the dorky character does do favors for the main character. Of course he demands creepy things in return, so I don’t know if that really counts, but increasingly he does stuff for her. But again, that to me only indicates more male entitlement because he did favors for her and now he’s entitled to her affection. Right? And so we’ve got what is clearly a very imbalance of attractiveness and we’re supposed to feel sorry for the guy because he’s not getting the girl he’s entitled to, is what it feels like.
Oren: Yeah, I would agree.
Chris: So, really aggravating for me. Do not like.
Oren: Yeah, it’s just kind of gross. It’s like, you know, maybe put some guys in there that the girls might actually want.
Chris: Yeah. And I think sometimes this trope is even done because again of the double standard with the audience where we expect women to watch movies or story read stories about men, but we don’t expect men to do the same for women. So we feel like, well if it has a female main character and we want a guy to watch it, then we’ve got to put in a self insert male character who gets the hot woman. Can you even imagine the reverse?
Oren: I mean it would be played as like weird comedy. I guess I’ve seen that a couple of times, but very rarely.
Chris: About a male protagonist who’s like really hot and instead of like dating a hot lady, he dates an unattractive, because usually if that happens it’s just for women audiences.
Oren: Right. And what I’ve seen was more sort of on the edge of a quote unattractive woman unquote, you know lusting after a hot dude. And that’s just automatically played as a kind of absurdity. When I’ve seen that usually the woman ends up becoming hot in the versions of this that I’ve seen. And of course, you know, if it was in a visual medium, she was Hollywood not attractive, which means still way hot.
Chris: Yeah. But if you think of the typical made for men action flick with a male power fantasy, the idea that, okay we need women to also go see this movie so we’re going to have an unattractive self insert woman character that he’s going to date instead of a hot lady.
Oren: Oh absolutely not. No.
Chris: Absolutely not. All right, your turn.
Oren: All right. It’s my turn. So speaking of things that are hard to do, mine is when you find out that a bad evil, no good character has had a hard life and now we feel sorry for him. I guess [sarcasm]. He had a hard life. You know? And it’s a little weird because showing that bad things have happened to a character is a legitimate way of building sympathy, but if you’re dealing with a character who’s also done bad things, then you have to pair that with positive action. And a lot of times stories don’t do this. One example from a story I just read, it is called Spinning Silver. And this is some mild spoilers for Spinning Silver. One of the characters is the czar and he’s possessed by a super evil demon, but he’s also kind of an asshole. And we start the story, the first thing we hear about him is that when he was a kid he used to torture animals and I was like, okay, I guess he’s evil too. And I was kind of confused because it was this whole, oh well sometimes the demon’s in control, but sometimes the czar is in control. And I was, what’s the point of the difference if the czar tortures animals, obviously he’s also evil. So…
Chris: So, two evil guys fighting for control, we can’t really tell the difference.
Oren: Right. Why not just make them the same person and he seems very evil and he certainly doesn’t care about all the people the demon kills. He doesn’t care about the people he rules. He seems perfectly happy to let the main character die and to get victims for the demon. And so he’s just a bad guy.
Chris: It does feel kind of pointless.
Oren: Right. But then we find out he had a hard life because the demon’s really mean to him.
Chris: [Laughter] Well, you can kind of guess that.
Oren: Right. And he didn’t choose this, because the demon was actually from a deal that his mother made. So he didn’t make that choice. So I guess he’s sympathetic now even though he continues to act like the biggest ass for the entire story. He never does anything to earn a redemption. But at the end he gets one, he gets free to the demon and now he just gets to be czar for regular time I guess.
And we get a triumphant moment with him and his czarina who is actually one of the main characters. And it’s like, what? What was the point of that? It was weird because that character was in like this middle ground of, I don’t like him, so I don’t want to see him redeemed, but I don’t hate him enough that I would like to see him die horribly. So it was just a very strange kind of pointless character by the end. And what’s funny is in that book, we actually do have another bad villain character who actually is redeemed because…
Chris: He does good things?
Oren: Yeah. Because he does good things, right? He does things that are worthy of redemption and also bad things happen to him, so we feel sympathetic, but that’s only part one, right? You need to follow it up with something and sometimes that’s just hard and instead the author just says he had a hard life and I guess that made him do bad things and no, he’s still responsible. He’s still a conscious being who makes choices even if bad things happened to him.
Chris: Right. I mean, you can start the redemption arc by showing the bad things that happened to the character, but then it needs to continue with them redeeming themselves.
Oren: Right. And you know, it doesn’t have to happen all at once, right? Like with Zuko we find out about his like tragic backstory in the same episode where he liked selflessly risks himself to like help his crew. That’s not like him becoming a good guy. That’s just him doing a sympathetic thing.
Chris: Right. I mean he does a selfless thing, which is…
Chris: …kind of how you start changing their behavior, so they are less despicable. And I remember one time you told me for instance, you had stopped watching The 100 because you saw Bellamy’s sympathetic backstory and you hated him, so you were like, no, I don’t want to see Bellamy be redeemed, and you stopped watching. And I think about that sometimes because after we see Bellamy’s sympathetic backstory, he starts doing better things, right? He shows that he’s sorry and he starts changing his behavior, but maybe it would’ve been better to have him start improving his behavior a little bit before they went into the backstory so that you wanted him to be redeemed a little bit instead of him wanting him to die in a garbage fire.
Oren: Yeah, I think that that’s basically what it was. It’s not that Bellamy’s…Bellamy’s redemption is fine, but he was so despicable that even though they do a proper redemption arc, he was past the moral event horizon for me and like it’s possible he could have come back if he had done good things before we were told he had a bad backstory and then that would have just been nicer. I would have been able to accept that better. Part of that was just the overall problem with early season one of the 100, which is some of the conflicts feels kind of contrived to me. Not all of it. There are some legitimate conflicts too and this definitely gets better as the show goes forward, but the early conflict just feels, like if these were normal high school students who are just having drama with each other except the stakes are suddenly life and death, but these aren’t high school students. These are all ex cons even though they’re teenagers. It was just very odd the way they were acting, which again the show gets over that pretty quickly, but there are few early episodes where that’s a problem.
Chris: Right. It’s one of the many shows that the first season is very high school drama and that can be a big turnoff. And like most dark stories with high school drama, it grows out of it because after a while that gets old and it has you know, life or death situations to deal with, but the first season is very much like that.
So my next least favorite trope is going to be how dare you villains, and I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I just hate comical cackling villains. I’ll actually make an exception for The Dark Crystal. They’re comical, but they’re also complex and interesting. They’re definitely not threatening enough, but that’s an issue for a different podcast. But the how dare you villain is specifically a villain that is surprised and outraged when the heroes fight back, and to the point where it’s extremely illogical. Like, they’ll try to kill all of the heroes. And then when one of the heroes in defending themselves kills one of their fellows on team evil, they’re like, [gasp], how dare you?
Oren: Like personally insulted by it.
Chris: Right, but for a big part of it is the how dare you indicates a certain level of surprise and it’s like, what were you expecting exactly? You were just trying to murder them all. What do you not expecting them to fight back as hard as they could and potentially kill one of you?
Oren: Look, I was expecting manners, okay?
Chris: An example, a lot of times they say how dare you? But an example that doesn’t say, how dare you is on the first season of The Orville, they have an episode called Krill about these enemies called the Krill.
Oren: Oh yeah. Those guys.
Chris: And they have some weird religion they follow and they’re just interested in just wiping out all of the, whatever the federation equivalent is on The Orville. And so they just attacked a colony and a couple members of team good sneak aboard their ship and find out that they have a bomb that they’re going to use to wipe out an entire colony of people. And so, but they also find out that there are children aboard the ship. So they go through this big plan because the only weapon they have, because there’s only two of them on the ship, but they’re not like super soldiers or anything, is to basically do something on the ship that will potentially kill everybody. Kill the Krill on the ship. But then they go to special pains to make sure that the kids are okay, right? And then return them to their home world and they have this conversation with this member of the Krill, the one adult that survived, and she’s just like, oh hey, you’re just like us. You’re, you’re the bad ones because you killed the adults on our ship.
Oren: How dare you?
Chris: How dare you? You were going to bomb an entire colony? It doesn’t strike me as realistic. In these situations, it’s often used to be like, don’t you see, you’re really the bad guys. It’s all subjective. But if you really have antagonists that are willing to commit genocide, the idea that they would be shocked and surprised when the people they’re about to kill, will kill them back seems very unrealistic. They already must have dehumanized or desapientized in the case of aliens, their enemy if they think it’s okay to just wipe them out en mass in an entire colony. So the idea that they think that their opponents are better than killing them, it just, it doesn’t square. That’s not the mentality of people who commit genocide or are that violent. Right? They would expect their enemy, they would claim that their enemy are the bad ones and they have to wipe them out first or something like that.
Oren: Let me look at it this way. It’s not inconceivable to me that someone could think that people are capable of deluding themselves. I just don’t get why out of all the possible people who could be here, you would pick that guy to be your villain. Like if you go and listen to what soldiers say about war, most of them aren’t like, those people were so evil for fighting us. Even in situations where they actually were evil. If you look at accounts of allied troops in World War II, they aren’t like, yeah, those Germans are evil for shooting us, even when they were the literal Nazis because it was war. You shoot at people. That’s what happens. Not to say that it’s not horrible and traumatic, but there wasn’t a sense of shocked moral outrage that they would do this. And again, I’m sure if you searched through soldiers, you could find someone who was really surprised that the enemy would shoot back. But why would you make that guy your villain? I mean you could also make a villain who just randomly picks their nose all the time. That’s a thing some people do, but you probably wouldn’t.
Chris: The problem here is that makes the villain look really incompetent. Right? That shock. Like you should have seen this coming and why didn’t you? And I guess if you wanted to, you could certainly set up a background for this villain, right? That would make it so that it’s realistic that they are surprised. But again, why would you want to do that?
Oren: No they just sound silly at that point and I mean sometimes it’s just a weird way to try to achieve false moral equivalency. Which brings me actually to my next one cause we don’t have a lot more time.
But I want to do one more, which is what about ism, which I’m glad I know that name for that because I’ve seen it before and I hate it. Which is where you will basically try to excuse a thing that you’re doing by saying what about that? And point to some other thing that someone else is doing and it’s called, what about ism specifically because that’s what they would say. It’s originally associated with the Soviet Union because that was a thing they loved to do when someone would be like, hey, Soviet Union, you’re committing a human rights violation, they would be, but what about the American’s human rights violation? Hmm? Checkmate. And very often they were correct. The United States certainly did its own share of human rights violations and continues to do so. But that really had no bearing on what the Soviets were doing. Right? It was just a distraction. Politicians nowadays love to do that. It’s not just a Soviet thing. It was just popularized by them. And I see stories do this sometimes and it doesn’t honestly really matter if the thing that you’re pointing out is real or not. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. They do that on Discovery sometimes. We talked about this a lot with the Klingons in the war in season one where they’re like, whoa; the Klingons are attacking you, but what about your peaceful exploration? And it’s like, wha, wha, what? Excuse me?
Chris: [Laughter] Where are your Federation ideals now? You’re defending yourself, how dare you?
Oren: In that case, it’s just kind of ridiculous, right? It’s like, okay, you obviously just made that up. That’s nonsense that you’re speaking, but sometimes they point to a real problem, like in the book Devourers or The Devourers or whatever. You have these werewolves who are super evil and just eat people constantly and also not just regular people, but the most vulnerable people. They go after the homeless and the poor. People who no one will miss because in addition to being evil, they’re also cowards. And when the one human character is, that’s bad, his werewolf friend is, yeah, but capitalism also kills homeless people. And I mean, okay, yeah, it does.
Chris: Capitalism is why they’re homeless, but you don’t have to make it worse for them.
Oren: So what does that have to do with what you’re doing? But that’s it. The movie, the book just keeps going because we don’t want to really grapple with how evil these werewolves are for some reason. I don’t know why.
Chris: Yeah. It’s like Space Opera, right? Where we have this premise, this ridiculous premise where humanity has to win a music contest or else they’ll be completely annihilated and you don’t really want to deal with the ethical implications of that. So what about…humans are bad too. Don’t you know?
Oren: What about those bad things that humans did? And in that case it’s just even more ridiculous because it’s like, yeah, those people who had bad things happen to them because it’s colonialism is what they keep bringing up. Victims of colonialism are still alive. They will also be destroyed if we lose the music contest. Oh my God.
Oren: It’s just such a bizarre argument and it’s so obviously wrong and okay authors, if you don’t want to deal with the moral implications of something evil, don’t put it in your story. Your story doesn’t have to include evil things. You made that choice.
Chris: Or in the case of Space Opera, I think the issue was that it was being played too straight for some weird reason. Just make it slapstick Wiley Coyote style.
Oren: Like Rick and Morty literally did that. So 20 minute episode of Rick and Morty, it’s the exact same story and I’m not going to say that’s a flawless episode, but it’s better than Space Opera because they don’t play it super straight.
All right, so we are basically out of time. We’ve complained our way through half an hour. Very good. All right, so before we go, I just want to thank a few of our patrons. First is Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at www.therambogeeks.com. Those of you at home if anything said piques your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants. And we will talk to you next week.
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