Commentary

Four Problematic Tropes to Drop

Kali and her gang from Stranger Things 2.

I know, we'll put our one woman of color in an unrelated side story so no one will like her!

Despite what some people may tell you, storytelling tropes are not inherently bad. They’re just something that gets repeated often enough for us to give it a name. Plenty of them are very helpful to writers of all skill levels. But then again, some of them are just bad. Then there are the ones that go beyond simply being bad and enter problematic territory. Not only will they make your story worse, but they also reinforce harmful attitudes in real life. Let’s take a look at the some of the worst offenders.

1. Whataboutism

Cover art of the Devourers, with a woman in a jungle full of bones. In The Devourers, it’s fine that werewolves murder the poor and helpless because capitalism also does that.

Whataboutism is the act of trying to excuse a bad thing you’re doing by pointing out an unrelated bad thing that someone else is doing. If someone asks why you’re burning down an orphanage, you say, “But what about that other guy who’s burning down a pet shelter?” The accusation might be true or might be complete fiction, but what matters is that it’s unrelated to what you’re doing.

This rhetorical strategy is often associated with Communist propaganda from the Cold War, but most countries indulge in it from time to time. The American right in particular loves it. That’s all bad enough, but when stories start using whataboutism, it becomes my personal problem.

In fiction, whataboutism usually occurs when an author wants to have something really horrible and shocking happen, but they don’t want to deal with the implications. So they have their characters do the terrible thing and then try to justify it by pointing out how other people have done something similar. If there are no convenient people or groups to point at, the author will sometimes just reference the general evils of “society” and call it a day.

This is a particular problem in dark stories, and it’s always frustrating. Someone in the story still does something terrible; it doesn’t matter that other people have also done terrible things, and the author acts like that’s all the justification needed. The story just moves on without ever addressing the problem. It feels like the story’s moral compass is broken, and it’s hard to take any satisfaction in whatever happens next.

That’s bad enough when you’re talking about topics like murder or arson, but it can get way more problematic. A particularly toxic strain is when authors try to use the horrors of colonialism to justify aliens destroying Earth. The victims of colonialism still live on Earth in these stories, and now they’re being wiped out because of the crimes committed against them.

What to Do Instead

The first thing to understand is that it’s fine for a character within the story to use whataboutism, as long as their views are not given authorial sanction. How do you stop that from happening? The best way is to have other characters point out how wrong this view is, especially the protagonist or a trusted secondary character. It’s also important to make sure the whataboutist’s views aren’t justified by events of the plot. Their views should be clearly wrong by the end.

If you’re using whataboutism to justify the actions of characters you like, you probably need to tone down their actions or give them a more compelling reason. If your sympathetic vampires kidnap humans to suck their blood, don’t justify it by explaining how humans also kidnap each other. Instead, make it clear this is something the vampires must do to survive, and then show how they’re very careful to only kidnap domestic abusers and corrupt politicians.

Finally, it’s always possible to construct scenarios where it is actually relevant to compare the wrongs done by two characters or groups, like if your protagonist is deciding which heir to the throne they should support. This is not whataboutism; it’s weighing the pros and cons.

2. Innocent Patriarchs

Cover art from Empire of Sand, showing the title over a curved knife. In Empire of Sand, Mehr’s stepmom is the worst to her, while her super cool father does nothing to intervene.

The story of a female protagonist tormented by her older female relative is a staple of many fairy tales. Often the tormentor is a stepmother, but not always. Sometimes you see aunts, governesses, or even the heroine’s biological mother in the abuser’s role. This trope isn’t inherently bad, but it gets gross fast when combined with a highly patriarchal setting and a living patriarch.

In this type of story, you have a heroine who not only lives in a world where men have all the power but who is also constantly abused by her older female relative. At least she has a kind father she can talk to. He provides contrast to that evil stepmom, and he is probably the one who taught the heroine to do cool things like horseback riding and sword fighting.

Except there’s a problem here. In extremely patriarchal settings, the father* has total power over the household, and yet he does nothing to stop the abuse. It would be easy, since no one can say no to him. This makes him at least complicit, if not an active abuser himself. Usually, this problem is left completely unaddressed. On the rare occasion when it is addressed, the author offers some excuse about how the father is either henpecked by his abusive wife or just clueless about whatever goes on in the world of women.

This is really harmful for a few reasons. First and foremost, it reinforces the stereotype that a woman’s real enemy is other women. Beyond that, it lets men off the hook for the role they play in patriarchal power structures, often treating them as large children who just don’t know any better. So, it’s sexist in both directions. Amazing.

Authors most often use this trope from force of habit, as far as I can tell. Our misogynist cultural lexicon is full of terrible stepmoms, so modern storytellers recreate the trope without thinking. Sometimes, it’s also employed in an attempt to make patriarchal settings seem more palatable, as strange as that sounds. Sure, men have all the power, but it’s really other women who are keeping our heroine down.

What to Do Instead

If you’re looking to put a refreshing twist on a stale classic, your best option is to make the patriarch abusive and let your heroine seek refuge with their older female relative. Not only is this subversion surprisingly rare, but it makes a lot more sense. The stepmother doesn’t have the authority to simply end the abuse, but she provides what cover she can with her limited influence.

If it’s absolutely essential that the protagonist’s tormentor be a woman, then you’ll need to either make your setting more egalitarian or show how the tormentor is actually a tool of patriarchal power. In a reasonably egalitarian world, the evil mother has all the authority she needs to torment her child, no fatherly approval required. At the same time, patriarchal systems often empower women to hurt other women, but that can be more complicated to depict. You’ll need to show how even though the patriarch never dirties his own hands, he’s still creating an environment that makes the abuse possible.

3. Empty Progressivism

Susan standing between Lucy and Peter in the American adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the American adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Susan boldly proclaims that girls can fight too and then does nothing for the rest of the movie.

As progressive values spread further and further into the mainstream, it’s no surprise that more storytellers want to reflect those values. On its own, this is a good thing. More progressive stories inspire a more progressive world. But sometimes it isn’t that simple.

You see, actual progressive values require moving past old ways of doing things. That’s why they’re called progressive. This makes people uncomfortable, and often the easiest path is to claim a progressive stance but then not follow it up with anything of substance. That way the storyteller can get their kudos, and the story can rake in progressive cash at the box office, all without offending any bigoted sensibilities. Everyone wins, right?

Except no, not at all. It’s bad enough for progressives when a story doesn’t reflect our values, and it’s even worse when it claims to do just that but then doesn’t. Now we feel insulted and lied to. And to put a cherry on top, bigots will still be mad that a progressive value was even mentioned! They’re just that sensitive to anything that challenges their worldview.

In fairness, it can be difficult to spot empty progressivism. The far right loves to lob accusations of “tokenism” and “virtue signaling” at any story with a woman or a hint of melanin, and we don’t want to buy into that ugly worldview. So how can we tell the difference?

The defining feature of empty progressivism is when the story promises to be more progressive than it is. Sometimes this is really obvious, like when a character just outright states that this story doesn’t subscribe to patriarchal values about women’s capabilities, even though it clearly does. Plus, these statements often deride women’s more traditional roles, which is just disrespectful.

Another common manifestation is adding a marginalized character to a story even though the cast is already full. The storyteller isn’t willing to lose any of their privileged characters, so they add marginalized characters and either give them nothing to do or send them off on unrelated side quests, guaranteeing that the audience will hate them.

What to Do Instead

Let’s say, as an entirely random example, that you’re adapting a fantasy story about thirteen dwarves, a hobbit, and a wizard going to get treasure back from a dragon. The cast is nothing but wall-to-wall white dudes, and you know that’s going to turn some audiences off. You could add a single elf lady who has nothing to do with the plot, but that won’t help anything. Instead, you need to actually change the identities of existing characters. Make the lead dwarf a black woman. Put two other dwarves in a gay romance. The sky’s the limit!

That’s really all there is to it. If you want to avoid empty progressivism, you must commit to real progressivism. Yes, it will piss some people off. But those are the kinds of enemies you want to have! Many of our literary giants are remembered specifically because they were willing to piss off the regressives of their time, from Mark Twain to Zora Neale Hurston. Plus, there’s no data to suggest that annoying bigots will make your story sell worse, so you don’t even have to worry about that.

4. Authoritarian Apologism

Cover art for Omnitopia Dawn, showing a man staring at a tree made of code. In Omnitopia Dawn, the big bad newspapers are totally out to smear our golden boy tech CEO because tech CEOs are famous for never doing anything wrong.

Thanks to the global rise of the far right, authoritarianism is on a lot of people’s minds these days. There are many different flavors of authoritarianism, but at their heart they all boil down to the idea that those with power can do what they want and the rest of us should just shut up. That sounds bad, and it is, but it’s also very attractive to people with certain worldviews.*

What does this have to do with storytelling? While very few authors actively support authoritarian views,* it is disturbingly common to find stories that make excuses for authoritarianism. This is called apologism, and it’s nearly as bad as full-throated support. In fact, sometimes it’s worse because people don’t recognize it for what it is; they just come away from the story with their existing biases reinforced.

In modern stories, apologism often manifests in plots that deride traditional checks on power like news organizations, the rights of the criminally accused, and democratic institutions. You see countless stories about how the cops could have stopped a serial killer if it weren’t for those darned defense attorneys and how politicians just can’t get anything done because they must appease the voting populous. How inconvenient!

In fantasy, and sometimes science fiction, this more likely manifests as an obsession over who the rightful monarch is due to blood purity, though authors will sometimes go further. It’s not unheard of for a fantasy story to feature a king needing to put down democratic opposition to his rule and being portrayed as a hero for doing so.

The most annoying part of this trope is that in isolation, it can seem to make sense. There are real-life examples of a leader being stopped from doing good work by checks on their power and times when the clearly guilty escaped punishment through legal technicalities. But these examples miss how terrible it would be to swing in the other direction. We don’t often talk about all the times a politician’s worst impulses were held back by checks and balances* or consider how important the presumption of innocence is, because those are our defaults.

What to Do Instead

For most stories, it’s best to simply avoid putting your heroes up against the institutions that are designed to check their authority. The antagonist for your divinely mandated monarch should be another divinely mandated monarch, not the democratically elected parliament. This is usually pretty easy and doesn’t cost the story anything.

If you want to go deeper, it’s possible to explore how checks on power can be misused, but that requires a much more complex examination of the issues at play. For example, you could write a story about how rich white people are routinely granted every legal protection, even when they’re clearly guilty, while poor black people rarely get a trial. That would be an examination of race and class privilege, not an embrace of authoritarianism.


From what I can tell, authors rarely use any of these tropes on purpose. They aren’t cackling to themselves about all the bad messages they’ve infused into their stories. Rather, problematic tropes usually crop up through unexamined assumptions of how stories should be told. That’s why it’s so important to think critically about our media, both as creators and as fans. We can do better than we’ve done in the past, but it will take effort.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    As far as 2 goes … I do agree with you on the general problem, which is older female relatives tormenting the heroine in a strictly patriarchal setting. But using the fairy tales is a bit difficult and here’s why:

    Snow White has no living father and the same goes for Cinderella. It’s explicit, at least in all versions I have read, that their fathers are dead and their stepmothers rule the kingdom/the household – making them the ultimate authority figures. That is possible in European-Middle-Ages-type stories, because in the middle ages, widows could take control of their own life and, if they happened to be the widows of kings with no heir old enough to take the throne, often also the kingdom. In addition, in the middle ages, women had ‘control over all keys’ and were heads of the household – their husband had no say about that. So, perhaps, the middle ages weren’t that strictly patriachal. If we’re speaking about societies where women have no rights or freedom to speak of, things are different, of course.

    With Snow White, what always struck me as more logical would have been her stepmother getting rid of her to keep control of the kingdom, once Snow White had reached marrying age. That’s far more logical than putting it all down to being ‘the fairest of them all.’ And, unlike Cinderella, there’s no suggestion that Snow White was mistreated (apart from having the huntsman set on her as an assassin and the assassination attempts by her stepmother later). Clearly, her stepmother didn’t spent much time with her or she would have realized how beautiful her stepdaughter had become – Snow White might be innocently unaware of beauty, but her stepmother is characterized by vanity, so she would recognize budding beauty when she sees it.

    • Elga

      It’s interesting that stepmother of Snow White decided to kill her just because SW is prettier. In society, where woman has some power (hasve own property etc) there us no such motives in fairy tales. And only in case if woman get all from man she belong, her beauty become critically important. In my homecountry, women for a long time had their own right to inherit property from their mothers and thus we do not have stories about mother-dauther beauty competition, but have competition in workability.

      Also, it’s true that in patriarchal societies elder women often become most obvious abusers of young women. But when showing this situation it’s important to show why this happen. Like Chinese mothers bind legs of their dauthers, they do believed they do best for their future. Or punishing one dauther for unwanted behaviour might be a desperate attempt to guarantee future of other children. It’s important to show that such elder woman-abuser is unavoidable part of partiarch system and they are also victims of this system.

      • Cay Reet

        It’s important to note, though, that the fairy tale of Snow White was written down by two thoroughly burgeois authors who have ommitted quite some stuff from the final version of their tales, such as Snow White’s originally blonde hair or Rapunzel’s pregnancy. Changing the power struggle for ‘being the most beautiful’ would be well within what they’d do.

        • Rose Embolism

          The original version had the queen be Snow White’s biological mother, who personally abandoned her daughter in the forest. Also if we look at the regional variations across Europe, “Bella Venezia”, “Myrsina”, “Nourie Hadig”, “Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree”, “The Young Slave”, and “La petite Toute-Belle” we see the common element of a mother or sisters jealous of a daughter’s beauty and plotting to kill her. In fact those stories stretch all the way to India, making it doubtful that the Brother’s Grimm scribbled out “father” and inserted “mother” over such a wide area.

          In any case there’s no need to alter Snow White to fit; there’s a number of stories that fit the pattern of a daughter fleeing an abusive father: “Allerleirauh”, “The She-Bear”, “Donkeyskin”, “The King who Wished to Marry His Daughter” “the legend of Saint Dymphna”, “Catskin,” “Cap O’ Rushes”. If one takes a functional anthropological point of view, one might want to consider what function these sort of folk tales serve in instructing young girls.

          • Cay Reet

            I was merely pointing out that Snow White has no father who could have reigned her stepmother (or biological mother, I do see the touch of the Grimm brothers there, because they would have thought it unheard of for a biological mother to wish her daughter ill) in as suggested by point #2.

            The jealousy feature is found in fairy tales a lot, but that might very well be attached to the fact that women were very much judged by their beauty – and in fairy tales ‘beautiful and innocent’ is very much a shortcut for ‘good.’

            However, as the reigning queen during Snow White’s childhood and early adolescence, her stepmother (or mother in other cases) would have been the supreme ruler. That is what I wanted to point out. That I think the whole reason for killing Snow White couldn’t only be her beauty comes from my own view of the story as not being very logical about the reason for the stepmother’s homocidal plans. She would have been completely away from power again as soon as either Snow White reached a certain age or took a husband (depending on the laws of the kingdom in question), which makes a much more logical reason for me. But, of course, fairy tales are rarely about politics.

            Yes, there are also stories of fathers who grew overly fond or were overly abusive of their daughters – worldwide, as it were. But most of them suggest sexual abuse rather than the abuse of the mothers or stepmothers (or sisters or stepsisters, indeed), which shows a clear difference. A lot of fathers want to marry their own daughters or at least sleep with them. Mothers and stepmothers tend to see their daughters as a threat to their own position (and sisters as a threat to a good marriage). That is the difference between abusive male relatives and abusive female relatives.

          • Naima

            I have some thoughts on number 2.

            1) you know it is possible for two female characters to not like each other and have nothing to do with sexism right? Girlhate can be a sexist trope, but two girls not liking each other (or an older women and a younger woman) isn’t inherently sexist. It’s can be accurate especially if they’re personalities clash or one is abusive.

            2) abusive mothers & wives exist, and there are famillies where men are in charge but the wife can be abusive to her child, and he doesn’t care or doesn’t know(like in cinderella), or maybe he’s also being abused by his wife.

    • Sam Victors

      Although not similar, there is a recurring theme in Fairy Tales and Mythologies; the old generation trying to wipe out the new.

      Like with Cronus and his kids, The Wicked Queen could have had a fear of being replaced by Snow White. In the older, Pre-Brothers Grimm version of the fairy tale, the Queen was not just envious of Snow White but also hungry for immortality.

      Several Psychoanalysts and Writers compare these youth-hating villains as Winter trying to prevent Spring from blossoming.

    • Tony

      Also regarding this point: “On the rare occasion when it is addressed, the author offers some excuse about how the father is either henpecked by his abusive wife…” That can be a legitimate reason, as women can abuse their husbands and boyfriends even in patriarchal societies. The trick is to explicitly establish that he’s being abused and treat it as a serious narrative element, instead of just dismissing him as helplessly emasculated.

      Maybe he and his daughter could connect over their shared experience of abuse and help each other confront their abuser. You’d have to do this carefully, since it could easily come off as a patriarch restoring his “rightful place” and saving his helpless daughter. An interesting angle would be if the daughter is mustering up her own power to rescue her father from an abusive situation along with herself, making her a more active agent. Of course, this would work best if the father respects his daughter as an equal and allows her to determine her own life once they’re no longer in an abusive situation — especially if the story’s setting is more egalitarian.

  2. Adam Reynolds

    While I haven’t seen the movie, in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe Susan’s line was changed from the book. In the book, as he was giving children lethal weapons, Father Christmas had the line that wars are ugly when women fight. As opposed to being beautiful when men fight. It was also Lucy who said she thought she could be brave enough, and she had no response to the above line.

    What he really meant was that men are more expendable, which is strictly true from a biological standpoint, but it’s hardly a good moral to argue in favor of or to build a society around. Made much worse by the fact that two of those “men” were adolescents(I think Peter was thirteen).

    It seems like the problem in the film was that they changed the lines without changing anything else.

  3. Dave L

    >You see countless stories about how the cops could have stopped a serial killer if it weren’t for those darned defense attorneys

    A Nightmare On Elm Street:

    “the lawyers got fat and the Judge got famous, but someone forgot to sign the search warrant in the right place and Krueger was free.”

    I always wondered how a lawyer could get rich defending a custodian. Maybe book rights?

    Bloody Good Horror (http://www.bloodygoodhorror.com/bgh/in-extremis-a-legal-analysis-of-a-nightmare-on-elm-street) examines this in detail

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah that’s a good one. I guess this is before Krueger becomes a dream ghost?

      • Cay Reet

        I can’t see how he could actually get into a law dispute afterwards. It would be hard to make him attend a court hearing, once he’s that dream ghost.

      • Dave L

        Yes

        The parents, upset at this miscarriage of justice, burn him alive

  4. Sam Victors

    For my fairy tale retellings, I have the wicked stepmother (or a stepfather, I won’t discriminate) have her secretly murder the Patriarch, in order to insure his money will go to her and her family, not to her stepchild.

    In my retelling of Cinderella, the Stepmother is actually fond of Cinderella in a possessive, smothering and creepy way; Cinderella bears a physical resemblance to the Stepmother’s late firstborn daughter (who mysterious died under the Stepmom’s watch) and makes Cinderella her replacement daughter, much to the anger and resentment of the stepsisters. She keeps Cinderella in the house all day, never letting her go out alone or even leave, and she wants her all for herself. She treats Cinderella like a caged bird and a child, and also forces Cinderella to forget about her birth mother and family. The Stepmother would only get abusive when Cinderella is ‘misbehaving’. Ste Stepmother’s abuse of Cinderella is based on a real life Dysfunctional Parenting method nicknamed ‘My Baby Forever’, in which the abusive parent treats their fully grown child as a small child, ignoring their growing individuation.

    The Stepmother is also working in a criminal business of illegal slave-trading and child/orphan trafficking. The stepfamily adopt Patriarchal authority, and the Stepsisters go to the extreme by adopting the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy as they care more about what men want from them then their own personal desires. The Elder Stepsister adopts the ‘Whore’ persona, which usually involves collecting lovers, partying, gambling and drinking, but also involves attending public executions and blood sport pits, manipulating men for her own amusement (as she cynically believes all men are slaves to their lust, be they a priest or a married man), hunting, exotifying men of color, groping underage boys, and has a slight homophobic problem (as she fears/hates gay men being immune to her charms and thus not easy for her to manipulate). The Younger Stepsister adopts the ‘Madonna’ persona, doing nothing all day but sewing and playing music and attending church service, but she’s terribly condescending, holier-than-thou, sanctimonious, preachy, judgmental, prone to hysterics and fainting spells, phobic of mice, and superstitious of witchcraft.

    Cinderella on the other hand is neither of these women; she’s cunning, self-determined, self-motivated, and seeks to reclaim her true identity and family estate, all of which were stolen from her by her stepfamily. She also practices a form of ancestor worship, and is aided by the ghosts of her sister, mother and grandmother (a Triple Goddess figure). She wins the Prince’s heart with her beauty, intelligence, kindness, and sensuality, but she does not marry him at the end (that is left ambiguous), but she wins her family estate and restores what is rightfully hers.

    • Sam Victors

      I should also like to add that, although rare, Good Stepmothers in fairy tales really exist, most of them popular in Icelandic or Norse Stories.

      Some of them would serve the role of a Fairy Godmother, usually by helping their stepchild/stepchildren with magic and resourcefulness. One Good Stepmother in a Norse Saga cried ‘tears of blood’ when the news of the death of her stepsons came to her, and she asked her biological sons to avenge them. This stepmother was none other than Aslaug of the Ragnar Lodbrok sagas.

  5. Joe

    One of the weirder examples of number four is the superhero roleplaying setting Freedom City, who has the villain Lady Anarchy, basically an avatar of “anarchy” in the sense of chaotic violence. It’s mentioned in her introductory adventure that her secret identity is ” infamous as a high-priced attorney to whom no client is too despicable to defend, be they terrorists, the basest demagogues, or homicidal ex-athletes”.

    No-one points out that ensuring that terrible people get actual trials rather then just being executed at the whims of the powerful or beaten to death by an angry mob is actually both a pretty good thing and the opposite of the violent mob rule that she’s trying to promote but, you know, it kind of is?

    • Alverant

      You’re right. It is opposite. Maybe a better civilian job would be a corrupt official, someone who is harming the very systems that make civilization possible. A nobody in a secure government job but with access to a lot of things like an accountant. Bills would be paid late but she’d be by-the-book to a crazy degree that people decide to start cutting corners out of spite, or so lax with enforcing the rules (like health code violations) that people get hurt.

  6. Mike

    “send [the marginalized character] off on unrelated side quests, guaranteeing that the audience will hate them”

    This is basically Rose in The Last Jedi. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “you hate Rose because she’s Asian and different!” No, I hated Rose because her story makes no sense, her quest influences the main story in basically nothing, and her preventing Finn’s sacrifice in the end is not cute, it’s infuriating.

    Funny how specifically the two non-white characters in the movie were sent off in a pointless side quest…

    • SunlessNick

      I liked that quest, but it belonged in a different movie from the desperate stern chase.

    • Alverant

      IKR, what was the point of going to the gambling planet except to show the rich people were funding both sides of the conflict and do some good CGI and cute droid moments? It did nothing for the plot. Basically, it was filler.

      It was Rocket Racoon saying, “I’m going to need that guy’s leg.” but taking up too much time and it wasn’t even funny.

  7. Innocent Bystander

    For 2, I think a good way to show that a woman is the tool of the patriarchy is to make it clear that the patriarchs not only condone her actions but echo her reasoning.

    “Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded” does this very well. Every female antagonist in the story is set up as merely doing the bidding of some powerful man, whether it’s the abusive new caretaker who was put in place by the male council or the headmistress who constantly impresses on her students that they have to always be biddable and calm so that they don’t disturb the men ruling the city.

    • Richard

      That brings to mind the trope of the “princess being forced into marriage”, which I have been musing on a bit lately.

      What if said princess was trained in political realities, and understood that these marriages were entirely for political reasons (to cement an alliance between families)? And that she knew that Marriage and Love are two separate things? And since Prince Hubby is probably going to have a couple of mistresses on the side, there’s nothing to say she can’t appoint her boyfriend/lover as “Master of the Hounds” or something like that?

      • Cay Reet

        That’s how it worked in quite some arranged marriages over time. He had his mistress somewhere nearby, she had a ‘riding instructor’ or other male household member to keep her company when he was seeing his mistress. Usually, the only critical point would have been that she waits until she has her first son, so the first child is definitly his (unless he’s not fit to father, in which case an astonishing number of men were cool with raising another man’s child as theirs).

        I also think it’s a difficult thing to use ‘women committing atrocities on other women (or people in general) do so on the orders of a man’ in a story – it robs those female characters of their own agency. A female villain who is merely the tool of a male one is no real character, but simply a speaking, breathing object.

        In reality, it happens often enough. Foot binding and female circumcision (which is really female genital mutilation) are both normally committed by women on their daughters or other female relatives, but they don’t happen to punish or subdue the other one (or because the woman committing them is sadistic by nature) – they happen because the women committing them think (or thought, in case of foot binding) that this is the only way their child/relative will have a good marriage to a wealthy husband.

  8. Int

    4 – There was a Brooklyn 99 episode that portrayed defense lawyers as enemies of the cop protagonists because they got criminals off the hook. I was really uncomfortable with that episode.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeeeeep. That episode was not great. I’m willing to accept the premise that the 99 are idolized cops who don’t do all the gross shit so common in real law enforcement, but in that context they don’t have any reason to hate defense attorneys.

  9. Cassie

    I’m so happy to see The Devourers referenced, I loved that book–but I’m surprised to see it called a whataboutism defender!

    I definitely read it as a deep window into the minds of the werewolves, but not at all a justification for their actions. I take it you got a different message from it?

    Awesome topic for a post btw, thanks for this one!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article! For the Devourers, the way I remember it, there are several scenes where the narrator is talking to Israel about werewolves, and when the narrator expresses disgust over the way werewolves murder people, Israel dismisses it with an excuse about humans doing the same thing, and the narrator seems to accept this argument.

      This seems to be important since without that justification, the werewolves are clearly terrible and it’s hard to care what happens to any of them.

      • Rose Embolism

        I think that the shapeshifters are indeed terrible, AND one has to consider what justifications monsters, both human and shapeshifter may come up with for their actions. What actions may be motivated by individual desire versus cultural imperative, and what may be considered a transgression on the personal or cultural level.

        Its also important to not simply go by what an individual narrators said, but look at the consequences of the actions described in the narratives, and also remember the three narratives are in dialogue with each other. Where one narrator justifies their actions, remember what another narrator says:

        “Those things you said before about my kind, that human men and women only war and rape. The worst thing about you is that you almost make me want to agree with you, with everything you say about my kind. But you’re not human. You’ve no right to say such things. I do, but I’ll never say those things. I am one woman. I am not all women. You bring out the bitterness in me. You bring it out like a fountain. All you do is make me remember rape and agony and hatred and forget every other moment in my entire life in which I loved. In which I loved my dear mother and laughed with her and marveled at her courage, at how much she cared for me. And I cried with happiness and not hatred and sorrow and fear. I’ve never loved a man in my life, but I am not fool enough to think that there are no men and women in this world that truly love each other and love their children together and did not conceive them through violence and pain. I will not be your human idol, your little goddess of suffering. I am not all human women. And you would do well to remember that while you devour and rape and preach and lament that humans will never love you.”

        It is a complex, ambiguous and multilayered book, one that doesn’t really fit into the Saturday morning cartoon morality that characterizes a lot of urban fantasy. It asks questions while not giving easy, facial answers. But as the quote above shows, it really doesn’t engage in whataboutism.

  10. Dvärghundspossen

    I thought it was really refreshing in the beginning of Bodyguard when David, MC and police officer, disobeys his superiors because he wants to SAVE the life of a terrorist they’re gonna shoot down with a sniper. He keeps standing in the way of the sniper even though he’s ordered to step aside, and eventually the bomb is disarmed and the terrorist arrested instead of killed.
    Like 99 % of the time when a police officer disobeys his superiors, it’s because he’s gonna kill and/or torture when they tell him not to.

  11. Silveriver

    Huh, maybe that’s why I love Ace Attorney series so much

  12. Anna Darksbane

    I enjoyed that none of these were the tropes I see so commonly thrown around and examined; great article and great food for thought. :]

  13. Tony

    On the other hand, drawing parallels between alien invasions and colonialism can work well. That trope dates back to The War of the Worlds, and Doctor Who did something slightly similar with the genocidal Daleks as Nazi analogues. But it only works if the point is “alien invasions and colonialism are both bad”, not “aliens colonising us is okay because we’ve already colonised each other”.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Very much in agreement.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Agree 100 %. War of the Worlds draw parallels to the Tasmanian genocide, which was pretty recent when the book was first published, but it’s VERY clear that the point isn’t to make the Martians look good; it’s to show how evil humans can be, doing this to their own species.

      There’s also a parallel to the meat industry, since the Martians draw energy from blood transfusions from other species, and kill humans for their blood. But once again, it’s not in order to make the Martians seem okay, but to question our own practices.

  14. Xandar The Zenon

    I understand the political leanings of this blog, and it’s very transparent about them, which is appreciated. However, I’m starting to really get turned off by unsupported pot-shots at anyone with differing political views. Especially when articles falsely conflate different definitions of “the right” and falsely represent their values. For example, this article talks about the American right and the global rise of the far right as if they are the same thing. Normally in European politics the right is indeed authoritarian and conservative and the left is indeed socialist and liberal, both implying large government involvement. However, in America the left favors governmental involvement, more socialist policies, and liberalism in the sense of being open to new ideas and willing to discard traditional values. In America conservatism is connected to traditional (i.e. Judeo-Christian) values, while politically it is connected to libertarianism (the exact opposite of authoritarian). Because these two definitions of the right are so disparate, it is extremely disheartening when the ambiguity between them is used as a weapon to invalidate my beliefs. It also is frustrating when I’m trying to read articles about how to be sensitive to others and simultaneously being attacked for having different views of how governments should be run. Racist, sexist, and other types of hateful people are plentiful on both sides of the political spectrum, although I’m willing to concede that many of the most vocal are currently on the right.
    Accusing the American right of loving whataboutism seems disingenuous, especially since attacking the opponent’s views instead of answering concerns seems to define political discourse in America right now.

  15. Jurot14

    I usually enjoy articles from Mythcreants. However, it bothers me that this article labels any people whose beliefs disagree with theirs as “bigots” and “regressives.” Creating a racist straw man which does not represent most right wing reader’s viewpoints and then saying it represents everyone on that side of the political spectrum is not the kind of thoughtful analysis I’ve appreciated from this site in the past…and it also violates the culture of respect that the rules for commenters seek to foster through forbidding the use of name calling.

  16. Kieran

    As for number two…I just realized there’s a third way you can make the abusive mother figure/innocent patriarch dynamic work: by making the patriarch an abuse victim as well. Male abuse victims do exist, after all, and I imagine they exist in all times and settings, even patriarchal ones. And what they suffer from probably goes a lot farther than “henpecking”.
    However, in order for it to work, you have to play it dead seriously. You can’t make any jokes at the male abuse victim’s expense, you can’t call him a sissy or imply that he’s weak or feminine, or even call him “henpecked”. Henpecked itself being a nasty word that implies that a man is lesser because his wife is emotionally abusive towards him. You also have to give the woman a real source of power over the man: like, say, make him secretly gay in a homophobic society and the wife knows and is using that as leverage in an especially cruel way. Or have the man be in a wheelchair and the woman uses that to make her more dependent on him, and possibly make him “sicker” in the process via poison.

    • Cay Reet

      In a strictly patriachal setting, though, it will be difficult to explain how the ultimate master of the household, who could have his wife flogged or otherwise punished for transgression, is actually abused by her. The point of #2 actually is ‘a society in which men have ultimate power over women’ – so the well-meaning father could order the abusive mother/stepmother to cease abusing the main character. In a more regular society, the father can be unable to stop the mother, but not in a setting where he has ultimate power about her life.

      • Kieran

        Does the father in your example REALLY have ultimate power over the stepmother’s life? Because I don’t think there are, or were, truly that many societies where the power dynamics were THAT imbalanced in the real world. Patriarchy, in reality, is not usually a ” man practically enslaves his wife” sort of deal, it’s usually “the wife is considered subordinate to the husband because of complex social, economic, and political reasons that may or may not have anything to do with the husband personally”. And whenever patriarchy is portrayed as the former, I find, it’s usually the result of White Feminism trying to “liberate” PoC women or some other racist nonsense. And besides, why would a sensible writer WANT to write a such deeply patriarchal setting anyway, if said setting wasn’t absolutely crucial to their intended theme/message? To me the inclusion of such a setting in the first place (without a substantial feminist message to back it up) speaks more to amateur, Fifty Shades of Grey-level quality of writing ability than any writer seriously trying to write a good story.

        • Cay Reet

          There are cultures where a man can easily dismiss his wife and divorce of her, which leaves her alone and without any support. Therefore, a man has control. And as you said yourself – there’s always the economic control. In strictly partriarchal settings, women usually don’t have the right to earn their own money and often can’t own anything – what they own, belongs to their husband. That alone gives a man control over his wife. And, yes, there are few cases where a wife isn’t worth more than a slave, even though she’s not considered one, although you’d have to go back quite a bit in history. Greek women weren’t in any good position, for instance.

          • JP

            Sorry, nope. This shows a misunderstanding to abuse that is really bothersome. This is akin to “she could simply leave if she wanted to”. As a survivor of female abusive (both psychological and sexual) it is never nearly as easy as you portray. I always had “the power to walk out the door”…however through years of gaslighting and negative reinforcement I was convinced that I wasn’t worthy of anything better and that I was *lucky* to have even the small amount of good interactions I had and that if I left I would be forever alone and worthless.

            It doesn’t matter if it is a total patriarchy or not, abuse works on the individual’s belief and view of themself. There might very well be *no logical reason* that they are still being abused, haven’t stopped it, haven’t left… but abuse specifically works *inspite* of logic.

            Sorry, seeing statements like this argument on the site just makes me have to say something. I swore when I finally did manage to get out of the years and years of abuse that I would speak up whenever possible about the subject.

          • Cay Reet

            It’s good to get different perspectives on things, so I’m glad you’re sharing your traumatic experience.

            I wonder, however, whether a strictly patriarchal society would produce a woman who will abuse a man. The example here is a woman abusing another woman and the man – who has more power by society – being shown as benevolent, but not acting. Because of that, it has been suggested that he, too, is abused. But in a very strict patriarchal setting, the upbringing of both the man and the woman in question would have been different to our society. Women would be taught from childhood to submit to men, because ‘that’s the way its done’ – so it would be highly unlikely for a woman in such a setting to actually become abusive towards a man. Men would be taught that women are ‘beneath them’ and that they will always have other options, unlike the women – so it would be highly unlikely they’d accept abuse. Especially the powerful men mostly shown in such stories would have easy options to finding another wife and would know it. They might not strike back with brute force (although the medieval-type fairy-tale settings would suggest even that), but they would do all in their powers (a lot) to subdue a woman who crosses them. And, as said, it’s doubtful a woman would even try abusive behaviour towards a man in that setting in the first place.

            A woman in such a setting abusing another woman is far more likely – since that would be abuse on the same level or even abuse of someone socially below her (children usually are not considered on a level with adults in every society and some might give parents or step-parents the right to abuse). This is what you can also see, for instance, in The Handmaid’s Tale where the Aunts break and train the Handmaids for their role (i.e. being repeatedly raped, then having their children taken from them) – women who are complicit with the patriarchy, mostly because they believe they do the right thing.

  17. Bethany Meyer

    “It’s racist both ways.” Dang. But I really do hate when I see all those passive male figures in stories. Or passive anyone. Characters need to act! *epic music plays*

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