You thought this was going to be a short blurb explaining the podcast, but actually it’s a meta reference to the episode’s subject. Are your expectations subverted? Probably not, because despite what you might have been told, subversions are hard work. You still need to provide a satisfying experience; otherwise, the story is just worse. How do you do that? Glad you asked, because that’s what we’re talking about today. We discuss what makes a subversion work, what makes a subversion fail, and how to tell when a subversion is being used at all.
Download Episode 295 Subscription Feed
Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Yzsekh. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. And with me today is…
Oren: And you expected this to be a podcast about storytelling, but actually it’s half an hour of public domain animal sound effects.[public domain animal sound effects]
Oren: So there we go. Have your expectations been subverted?
Wes: Whoa! [chuckles] What’s even real anymore?
Oren: Yeah. Who knows? I said it was going to be one thing and it was something else. Amazing. One Hugo, please. [chuckles]
Wes: You are brilliant. You’ve achieved the impossible.
Oren: We talked about this subject like six years ago and uh, I’m going to be honest. Also to subvert your expectations. I didn’t listen to that episode. So I have no idea what we said back then.
Chris: Look, we can either spend an hour listening to an old podcast or we can spend an hour making a new one.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, that was really the reason that I didn’t have time. Also, I seriously recommend never listening to something you recorded six years ago. Wes was smart enough to not be with us six years ago. So like he doesn’t have that problem. But, you know, in a few more years Wes you’re going to start having that problem.
Wes: Oh no.
Oren: So anyway, the reason I wanted to talk about subversion is that it honestly feels like in modern media discourse, the word subversion has become kind of cursed.
Chris: Yeah. It’s really overused and it’s overused for bad reasons.
Wes: They’re just using it to mean like a twist, right?
Chris: No, they’re using it to mean whatever they want it to mean to defend anything from criticism.
Wes: Oh okay, even better. Words have no meaning. It’s great. [chuckles]
Oren: Usually what happens is, nowadays especially, I feel like every time there’s a movie or some popular story that a bunch of people didn’t like for whatever reason, but it was good enough in other ways that other people did like it though, it’s fans will always say that it was subverting your expectations. As if that’s a defense [oh no]. It’s like, no, you were wrong to not like it, it wasn’t that you didn’t like it, it’s that it subverted your expectations. And that’s a really weird thing to say to someone. It doesn’t actually mean anything and it takes a concept that’s actually important, subversion, and just turns it into a fan rage defense cause subverting expectations is a real thing that has value when done correctly.
But it’s not the defense you can throw out whenever someone says a movie that you like has problems. And I’m not just talking about the Last Jedi [laughter]. To be clear. It does come up a lot, but I’m not just talking about the Last Jedi. There are plenty of other things where people will be like, “oh, well, the reason you didn’t like it is that it’s subverted your expectations”.
Wes: That doesn’t even make sense!
Chris: I don’t think that word means what you think it means. [chuckles]
Oren: And sometimes they are kind of correct in that sometimes the problem was a bad subversion. Sometimes not, sometimes it has nothing to do with that.
Chris: Sometimes it’s not a subversion, but they really want to believe that it is
Oren: Right. But in other cases it is a subversion and it’s a bad one. So just to get us started, I thought it might be good for each of us if we can think of one off the top of our heads, name a good subversion and a bad subversion that we have encountered in the wild, just so that we can kind of establish a baseline.
So mine, my good one is, spoilers for Madoka Magica, the death of Mami. And I think it’s the third or fourth episode. That one is genuinely shocking. And it is good. Because, not only because it’s foreshadowed, a lot of bad subversions are foreshadowed, but not only is it foreshadowed, but it opens up a completely different type of story than what I thought we were going to have, and a brand new, super interesting plot line of like drama and dealing [with] loss and stuff like that. So that’s why I think the death of Mami is good because, up until the death of Mami, It’s not really clear that you’re not watching a traditional magical girl anime. Again, there is foreshadowing. You can see with the character Homura, that there are some dark elements to this show well before Mami dies. And the character’s name is Mami. That’s just how the name is pronounced. It’s not, you know, it’s not a mom thing. Anyway. So I think that’s a good one.
A bad subversion is in Iron Man 3 with the Mandarin. Now, I understand why they did this. And what happens in Iron Man 3 is that they spend the whole movie building up the Mandarin and then it turns out he’s just an actor who was hired to shoot some film that was then used as part of this terrorist networks PR campaign. And I get why they did that, because the Mandarin as an Iron Man bad guy is hecking racist. So I know why they wanted to do something to subvert it. Unfortunately, what that left us with was, well, it turns out the bad guy is that dude, who we actually already knew was a bad guy by this point in the story, we just didn’t know he was the top bad guy.
So it turns out that he’s higher on the org chart than we thought. And, instead of having this cool menacing villain that they’d been building up, we have this dude who’s thing is that Iron Man didn’t go to a business meeting with him once. And now he’s angry about it. And the problem with the subversion is that there’s nothing left, right? It doesn’t leave you with anything. Instead of subverting to something cool it subverts to nothing. It’s like, well, okay. I guess there wasn’t actually a cool thing happening in the movie. Okay. That’s an issue. That’s not a good subversion.
Wes: A good subversion comes to mind is the movie Knives Out, which I guess, it’s not really a spoiler because the subversion wonderfully happens within like 20 or 30 minutes of the movie’s opening up.
Chris: Also, the movie is way better once it happens. And so you really have to spoil it for people. So, this is an issue with subversions that I want to go into later, which is what you do before you do this subversion, which can be an issue. But in any case, not really spoiling anything for anyone.
Wes: Timing is important. And like, they basically set up this movie, it’s like, “Oh, okay, it’s going to be a standard like murder mystery who done it kind of deal, blah, blah, blah”. But then, 20 minutes in, the witness who was there just says exactly what happens. You know exactly how this guy died. And it’s just out there on the table and then suddenly the movie gets really good because it’s not really about that. It’s about something else entirely. And I think that’s very good, like just taking your expectations of this kind of private detective murder mystery figure and what you’ve kind of been brought to think that involves.
And then suddenly they just throw that whole thing out the window in the first 20 minutes of the movie, it’s just like, “Hey, 20 minutes in. Guess what? This is not the movie you thought it was. Let’s go”. And also the soundtrack is incredible.
Oren: It’s a good soundtrack. You have a bad one?
Wes: Do I have a bad one? Let me think on a bad one.
Chris: That might be a little tough for me too, but I have a good one I can point out. So, I might have to put the name of this episode in the show notes, but in Buffy, there was this episode where Buffy and Cordelia are competing to become prom queen. The episode is kind of focused on a relationship arc where they are completely at odds with each other in the beginning, and they’re competing over this and they were dividing up all of their friends.
And then of course, they go through a crisis together, you know, and start to make up. And then at the end of that crisis, they go into prom and it’s about to be announced who is going to be prom queen. And the announcer’s like, “actually we have a tie”. And people are so used to this trope. “Oh, the tie between them both!”
And then the announcer says that the two other girls who were competing, that they had totally dismissed from the very beginning of the episode were the ones that tied so that neither of them got it instead of both of them getting it [ha!]. And it worked really well. Obviously we had a trope that we were expecting, but not necessarily looking forward to, that kind of subverted that cliche, but it also was really good because it highlighted this sort of pointlessness of their competition. Right? Well, they did this, these brutal competitive tactics against each other and got really hostile over it. And what was the point? Whereas if they had both tied and won you could have thought, well, maybe you’ve one of them just fought with a little more tooth and nail, you know, she would have won.
It just wasn’t worth becoming antagonistic for this competition. So it had both a good surprise that subverted a cliche, and at the same time it did add meaning to the episode.
Oren: Yeah. And that’s, I think the most important thing about a subversion, is that when you subvert something, you have to offer something in its place. If you just subvert something and then leave that place empty, which is what Iron Man 3 does, it’s like, “oh, well this is just less good than you said it was going to be”. That’s less a subversion and more leaving something out. And that’s how you get audiences that feel lied to. And, you know, since we might as well mention the Last Jedi, at some point, there are both good and bad subversions in the Last Jedi, a good subversion, although it is delivered in a bad way, that kind of sabotages it, is that Rey’s parents are no one. That’s actually a good subversion because that provides a conclusion to this soul searching that she’s been doing of trying to find like, you know, who am I? Where do I come from? And the answer is it doesn’t matter. That’s the answer. The problem with that subversion is that it’s delivered in such a way that it really seems like Kylo Ren might be lying because obviously they hadn’t actually decided who Rey’s parents were going to be at that point. And then, you know, Rise of Skywalker, it’s Palpatine! Woo! And so, you know, that retroactively ruins it. But in the moment, that’s actually a cool idea. And I think way more people would have liked it if it had been delivered in a more forceful way.
Wes: Force-ful way.
Oren: Ha! [chuckles] And not just left to be like, was he lying? Cause at that point you’re just kind of confused.
Chris: I would also just say that the hard thing about that landing correctly it’s also that with the Star Wars movies, the new trilogy, they have so much going on. Like obviously the Buffy twist had a lot of thematic resonance, and it almost felt like Star Wars has so much going on that it’s hard to say what they wanted you to take away from that reveal. Like you said it, it doesn’t matter. She can be her own person, and they could have taken some time with it. They could have established that as a theme, but I don’t think that they really did because I think they had so much going on.
Oren: Yeah, that is another problem, right? Is that it would have been much easier to establish, like, what is your noble bloodline? Because Star Wars already has themes of that. Whereas like you come from no one it’s like, well that would have taken off a little more time to set up properly. But I still think it had the potential to be very good. As opposed to something like, in the same movie, the whole, well actually the Jedi were bad is. Is part of the thing that’s going on in that movie. And it’s really hard to look at the previous three movies, I mean the original three, and think that this is supposed to be the case. It feels like you’re reckoning the world even if you are revealing information that technically might have been true and we just didn’t know it in the original. It feels like this does not line up with what has been established before.
Chris: And it devalues the other stories that we’re already invested in.
Oren: Right. And then at the same time, of course, you had to walk it back at the end because Disney still wants to sell Jedi toys. So that’s part of the thing that confused me about the Last Jedi, is that it has all the subversion and then at the end they undo all the subversion. And I’m just like, I don’t know why Disney wanted the subversion in there in the first place if they’re just going to undo it.
Wes: For the illusion of story. [chuckles]
Oren: Right. And it’s like, I don’t get it. I just don’t understand what the thought process was there.
Chris: So if we could just outline, again, what the ingredients of a good subversion are, just in a more conceptual level since we’ve dug into it. Obviously the story sets an expectation and sometimes the story is heavy handed with it, or sometimes that’s what you expect to happen because that’s what every other similar story does. And then it has to clearly veer away from that expectation. Sometimes people claim that something is subverting a trope that the story appears to be playing straight, like that doesn’t seem very subverted, I think it’s just doing that trope.
Oren: It’s rude of you to call out Dune personally like that. [chuckles]
Chris: But like a good subversion usually has a specific moment where it clearly veers away. A twist or reveal where you can even see that happening, and there is no confusing it. It is obviously deviating away from that expectation.
Oren: And the reason why it doesn’t work in Dune is that what happens in Dune is that Paul does all of the same things that a white savior does, in that he goes to a society of brown people and becomes better at their stuff than they are, and then leads them to victory against a superior enemy that they couldn’t beat on their own and then lets them triumph. That’s what a white savior does. And the only difference between Paul and someone like Jake Sully from James Cameron’s Avatar, is that Paul knows that he’s an outsider who has come to help the fremen, but he still does all of the same things with the same result. And he angsts a bit about this coming war that might happen, even though in the story there’s no reason a war would happen, but none of that comes to pass until the next book anyway. And so within the first Dune book, which I’ll remind you is 188,000 words, Paul is just a white savior. There is no subverting that. He just is one.
Chris: So if it’s self-aware, that’s more like lampshading. It’s not a subversion. So then in order for it to be like a successful subversion, the audience also has to get value from the departure from that expectation. If they’re disappointed, you’re just violating expectations. You’re not subverting them. So usually it means that the expectation isn’t something that the audience was really looking forward to and it’s going to be super disappointed. So that’s why it’s often tropes that are a little cliche that end up getting subverted. And for instance, the Buffy example, you know, we thought that they were both going to get the award. And it wasn’t like a super disgusting cliche, but it was enough to be like, “okay, that’s kind of cheesy, but I’ll go with it”. Oh, right. And so it wasn’t, whereas it had been something that was actually important to the story, that was critical to the story. If you break your story, you know, you’re not subverting expectations. You’re just violating them. Because the story needed that, and that’s just disappointing.
Oren: It would have been like if at the end of season five, instead of Buffy sacrificing herself, some dude showed up with a vial of Dawn’s blood and was like, “ha, I’m going to”, and then did it. And it’s like, well, I mean, that did subvert my expectations [chuckles]. That wasn’t what I expected to happen, but you know, not in a good way. I also think it’s worth mentioning that not all subversions happen because of in-story expectations. Some subversions are subtler and they rely entirely on cultural expectations. And so they wouldn’t necessarily be a subversion outside of that different cultural context.
And I have two examples. One of them is from the TV show Glow, which has a fictionalized story about the women’s pro wrestling league called Glow from the eighties. And in that show, the main character has an abortion and that’s a subversion because there are never abortions on TV. Nobody has abortions on television or in movies. Like sometimes they talk about it, but they always find a reason to not do it. And it’s cause it’s, you know, even if you are pro choice, there are a lot of people who are pro choice who were just kind of uncomfortable with it. And people who are anti-choice obviously hate it. And so it’s weird to see someone be willing to go there. And so it feels subversive. It wouldn’t be in a society where abortion was more accepted.
Wes: Yeah. That’s a good point.
Oren: And I don’t live in such a society, so it’s hard to judge, but my guess would be that that episode would still work fine. Even if we were in a abortion accepting society, cause we understand that for her it’s a problem because she lives in the eighties United States. And then another example real quick is from the novel Santa Olivia. And in this story some characters escape to Mexico, but they do it with the help of the Mexican government and not using the standard established trope of Mexico just being a crime zone where you go if you want to do crimes, which is a thing that you see in a lot of American media. And so again, in the story, it doesn’t really set any other expectation, but it still feels kind of subversive.
Chris: I also have an example of a subversion that depended on meta context. So in the show Dollhouse, they brought in a guest actor, Alan Tudyc, and you know, this is a Joss Whedon show, and he is really well known for playing another character in Firefly called Wash, and Wash was a really like fun, loving character, not aggressive, really nice guy.
And when they brought him into Dollhouse, you know, everybody recognized him or a lot of fans of Joss Whedon or, you know, specular fiction TV in general, would recognize him and associate him with Wash. And he was also playing a character that seemed really shy and meek. So then when it was suddenly revealed that he was the big, bad, and he had been playing this role of being meek, it was incredibly subversive because of that meta context of recognizing the actor and associating him with a former role. And that one was also nice because I don’t think it actually did depended on recognizing him. Oren has previously complained about some instances where they bring in a famous actor and they, you know, there’s a big, like pause, and the music changes and we expect like, wow, this is a big reveal. But there is nothing in the story that makes this understanding more significant. It’s only the meta context of the actor. Whereas this particular one was especially subversive because of the association, but it didn’t depend on it to work.
Oren: Well, I mean, that’s just the way any good reference works, right? It’s like, well, if you get the reference, there’s extra material here. If you don’t, it still works fine. That’s how all references should be, as opposed to something like in Fringe where they finally reveal who the secret character is. And the reveal is that he’s played by Leonard Nimoy. That’s it. That’s the reveal. And it’s like, I like Leonard Nimoy, but that is some nonsense.
Chris: Do you mind if I talk about the question of what to do before a subversion, if you were subverting a trope that people don’t like?
Oren: I was just about to get to that.
Chris: Sorry for stealing your thunder.
Oren: You subverted my expectations, I thought I was going to talk about it. No, you should talk about it though.
Chris: Okay. So we’ve gotten a lot of questions about this after the other material that we’ve done. About subversions. You know, I’ve got this cliche, that’s really boring and I’m subverting it. What do I do before we reveal that the cliche is going to be subverted where people think that my story has this cliche or, more extreme, I want to subvert a problematic trope. What do I do in my story before it’s subverted and just appears to be a problematic trope being played straight?
So there’s a number of different ways in which the subversions usually take care of this. For one thing, a lot of subversions are not actually subverting something that’s seriously unpleasant. Like nobody’s going to hate the episode with Buffy and Cordelia competing, if they both win. It’s a little tiresome, but it’s not that bad. So usually a lot of times it’s a milder issue.
Another again, of a mild problemic tropes subversion example would be in the first chapter of a City of Bones. Where we have this bad guy go into a club and he spots this chick that he’s choosing her as his victim. And then we think that she’s going to be this damsel, or we think that she’s going to be, just like in a horror story, the first woman to get killed. And then we turn around and find out that actually she was trapping him. And she’s a hunter of these demonic creatures. So like that one, again, it’s mild enough that people probably aren’t going to rage quit the story over it.
Another reason is a lot of times they happen pretty quickly. Like the Buffy twist, it happened pretty fast, so we didn’t really have much time with the more tiresome trope before it was subverted. So that’s another way in which that’s made better. And then the final way that I know you could make it better is simply by introducing other people, positive things into the work. If you have a tiresome cliche, you know, introduce some other form of novelty into the story to keep people going until you subvert the part that seems a little bit older and more tiresome.
Oren: Or, and here’s another version that you can do. A lot of people, when they think of a trope being subverted, what they imagine is you do that trope straight for a little while, and then you change it. And that’s one way to subvert stuff, but it’s not the only way. So going back to the Dune example, I would probably not recomend that you try to do a white savior subversion by having a character, be a white savior and then finding out that actually he’s doing bad things. It just takes too long and people will assume you’re doing a white savior story because so many other stories, including Dune, have done the same thing.
And unless someone spoils it for them, they might just not even get to the part where you do the reveal. So in that case, what you would do is, instead of having your character be the savior, you would have your main character be a local leader who, is watching as this outsider who is super charismatic, rolls in and is gathering followers because they’re really good at getting people to follow them and really good at making promises and has some kind of power that you don’t have, and you’re watching this happen and you have to do something about it. That’s a subversion of the white savior trope, and it doesn’t depend on you playing the white savior trope straight for a while to then do something different.
Wes: I think that’s a really good point because a lot of the time I think you can make a successful subversion just from the first word of your story. The premise can be subversive. I’ve talked about the Last Ring Bearer, which is basically just subverting the entire story of the Lord of the Rings by saying, “oh, guess what, Mordorian’s are actually people”, you know, they’re not an evil race and they reimagined the whole conflict as an Eastern West kind of political conflict. But that happens from page one and there’s no priming any kind of thoughts. Otherwise it’s just suddenly, here’s your story.
I think on a previous podcast too we were talking about how westerns were so played out that suddenly it was subversive to just make them realistic and gritty and you know, and terrible. And it’s like, okay, great! We didn’t need to like play it nice for 20 minutes and then suddenly be like, “oh, actually, everybody just got like, you know, droughted to death or something”.
Oren: It was gritty and horrible from the start.
Wes: From the start. Yes.
Chris: Another example of that type of subversion would be Winter Tide, where again, Lovecraft is super racist.
So in Winter Tide, the main character is a deep one. Which were the creatures that he made up to be the horrific other that were like, oh no, they’re mixing with humans.
Oren: Although, this brings me to another thing I wanted to talk about, which is what should you do before the subversion is revealed if you are doing that type of subversion, where you want to have it be a reveal in story. Cause I do think there’s some risks here because we mentioned Knives Out earlier and I had a problem watching Knives Out, where for the first 20 minutes, I was incredibly bored. Because I didn’t know anything about Knives Out when I went to watch it, I just heard people say it was good. And so for 20 minutes it looks like it’s doing a very straight, whodunnit mystery. And I’ve seen those. And there wasn’t anything about this one that particularly made it look interesting. And I was just falling asleep as I was watching this. And then suddenly there’s this subversion where it’s like, “oh, it’s not a who done it, it’s like, we know who did it, it’s a, how do we get away with it?” Because it wasn’t really their fault. I was like, that is so cool. And I love it. Why did I have to spend 20 minutes watching a significantly worse movie? So I’m not really sure what the solution in Knives Out was. I do think you just want to be careful not to make your story look too uninteresting before you subvert it.
Wes: Definitely. I think they tried to rely very heavily on the aesthetics of the mansion and the cast, like let’s face it, the cast right there, it’s got Chris Evans and Jamie Lee Curtis in it, you guys will watch this. [chuckles]
Chris: I do think that is an example of where we have a cliche and we need other novelty in the story to make it interesting before the cliche is subverted. I think that is an example. And so, I can understand why, because the story was making commentary on the standard mystery. Why was playing the mystery so straight, but if it had something else interesting, as Wes said, I think maybe it was depending on the list of actors that people liked to provide that extra source of novelty.
Oren: It was just really, depending on you wanting to hear what Daniel Craig sounds like with an American accent.
Wes: And a more like southern, antebellum south type thing. That was, that was an experience. [chuckles]
Oren: Well, it’s hard to top Daniel Craig’s weird southern accent [laughter]. So I just want to mention one more thing, which is just in general, remember that when you’re subverting something, it has to be subverted in substance, not just in form, or even if you want to say in function, not form, because trying to subvert it in form is just changing the esthetics of it, and that doesn’t really do it. Like how, according to Robert Jordan, he subverted the trope of the wizard comes to town and takes the chosen ones on adventures. And the reason he thinks he subverted it is that his chosen ones are kind of mouthy to his wizard and kind of rude to her. And it’s like, no, that’s not a subversion Jordan. That’s just the trope. You just did the trope, you played it completely straight, and you like made your main characters, kind of ruder than Frodo is, that’s the only difference [chuckles]. So just remember function, not just form, otherwise it’s not really a subversion.
So I think with that, we will go ahead and end the podcast. And this is the actual ending. Not as subversive ending [chuckles]. Before we go I want to thank a few of our patrons.
First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Denita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you all next week.
If you like what we do, send a few dollars our way through our patreon. Every cent goes into the heart of gold we lounge on like dragons, just go to patreon.com/mythcreants.[closing theme]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Colton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?