The word “trope” has come to indicate a literary or rhetorical device or motif in creative works, usually ones that propel plot, character development, or fictional design. This can be something as (relatively) harmless as Love At First Sight, a trope where characters instantly fall in love and have a connection in order to jump-start a romantic plot line. They can also be actively harmful, like using Native American characters as representations of savagery (as found in Westerns or American Gothic horror, for instance).
Tropes, whether harmless or not, have a tendency to belong to the oppressive classes by their very nature. One of the vast-reaching effects of white supremacy and colonialism is the cultural embedding of toxic and dangerous stereotypes and beliefs in literary genres, usually found in “foundational” works that trickled across into their descendants and found root in their creative work. It can be seen in Lovecraft’s influential horror and how he worked his fear of Blacks, Native Americans, and “racial mixing” into the very design of his creatures. It can be witnessed also in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where the greedy dwarves are meant to be analogous to Jewish people and evil orcs are racialized stereotypes.
I’m not going to argue here about why it’s important that we consider how literature as a sociopolitical tool impacts society and community memory (partially because I did that already). If you want to say the words “stop putting your political agenda into your fiction”, this is not the essay for you. What I will say now is that subversion doesn’t have to be your main goal, and sometimes it can happen by accident, just by wanting to create something that doesn’t use anyone’s identity as an implement of malice or by wanting to thrive in a space where you have not before. Purposefully subverting tropes and not subverting them in order to claim them as your own and find joy in them are both acts of rebellion; they just look different.
These days, the phrasing “subverting tropes” get thrown around with impressive frequency, both because people want to see literature they have been enmeshed in for a long time take on a new life and because things deemed “tropes” have a really bad reputation even if they are harmless. When it comes to, for instance, racist tropes: should we subvert them in the text or should we just extricate them with pencils and picks, until whatever they have infested is clear of their invasive effects?
Ruthanna Emrys, Victor La Valle, and Matt Ruff (to name only a few) have been writing in the eldritch, weird, Lovecraftian horror genre specifically to question and address the racism that is at the root of all of Lovecraft’s imaginings. (You can read about Emrys’ approach to Innsmouth at The Verge, or listen to La Valle talk about The Ballad of Black Tom on Fresh Air to learn more). These are all books that have, at their core, the rigorous subversion and extraction of systematically oppressive concepts. But you can find just as much of this in a podcast like Unwell, which has done so much work in writing Midwestern Gothic horror that does purposeful heavy-lifting with regards to the portrayal of Native Americans, and also tackles the Gothic’s fear of racial mixing, perhaps somewhat accidentally, through casting choices and a desire for equitable representation.
We should not only laud and support works that are purposefully and consciously subverting tropes, but also works that are reclaiming them and finding power and joy in them where previously they had been denied even access. Fan Wars: The Empire Claps Back focuses on the developing relationship between two Star Wars nerds of color, one of whom is a Black woman–people who have long been and continue to be the vicious target of attack in these pop culture communities. This is a story about love, not only the romantic kind, but the love of a fictional universe and its media via both addressing its problems and engaging with it wholeheartedly. It’s also a genuinely fun romantic-comedy that plays with some of the best romcom tropes with people of color as leads in a space where they very rarely get to be leads.
The Once and Future Nerd (TOAFN) is a fantastic, long-running portal fantasy about three teenagers trapped in a high fantasy medieval world. This podcast perhaps did not start out in season one intending to make the kinds of commentary and criticism they are now making, both elegantly and intelligently, in their most current season. As noted by Wil Williams, subversion becomes a theme after some development, luring listeners in with adventure and hijinks and using that framework to root it in real world problems. For instance, in TOAFN, the treatment of orcs within the universe and plotline handles multiple familiar tropes and situations:
It targets the racist “othering” in fantasy, especially when creating villainous creatures and cultures — these are often coded representation of civilizations of color (for more on this, head here or here).
It is also a skewering of the racist messaging built into fantasy and sci-fi universes where an entire group of people is presented to a lead character as bad, violent, and irredeemable (which is often racist or otherwise prejudiced and bigoted, see above). In these situations, the character believes it without question and it turns out to be true; in other situations, it isn’t true but becomes a “noble savage” situation. Most of the time, the evil horde is just that — an evil horde of dark-skinned orcs that wear bone jewelry and have no redeeming qualities, whatsoever.
It speaks to the real world endemic issue of prevalent negative and stereotyped narratives against people of color, and the erasure of the genocides and other war crimes perpetrated against them.
Creating a better, more just and equitable world involves interrogating and investigating the places where these dangerous ideas have taken root, in order to heal and improve. It means passing the microphone and listening to marginalized folks who are writing in those spaces in order to take back and reframe what has been violently used against them, either as a direct critique or as a joyous reclamation. The onus of interrogating and re-examining these embedded problems should not rest solely on the backs of the victimized, but future authors should look to their words in order to inform their own. It means not being afraid to write about characters and situations that are not you own experience, doing your best to do so responsibly, and accepting criticism with both grace and an open ear.
You don’t have to start a project with the main goal being “subvert this genre’s tropes”. You can decide to write something because you have an experience you have not seen before; that, in and of itself, is a kind of subversion, this time of normative conceptions of what certain genres look like. You can decide to write something because it is a space that you love, that you’ve spent a lot of time in, and you want to explore the reaches of your imagination more. Romantic comedies, fantasy, horror, science-fiction (and so on) all need to continue to be explored; nothing has been overdone, in my opinion, because not everyone has gotten to write about it freely and from their perspective and experience. Perhaps the most important thing to do before setting out on an adventure in a genre you love is to educate yourself on what exists within your understanding of it that is rooted in colonialism and oppression, and how you can best not be an asshole. The oppressors of our past should have no further say in how we build our future, and that means both calling them out in and cutting them out from our storytelling, too.
This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #30, May 27, 2019.