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.
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
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
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
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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