Tropes Must Be True!

I was a very, very bad Amy at one of my Baycon panels. I think the programming committee saw that I’d checked I’d be willing to be on the “Romance in SF/F” panel and saw “female” and added me to this all-female lineup of diehard romance writers and readers.

Yeah. I wrote one delicate sex scene 10 years ago that I had to ask Ron Collins for help with. Mel in “To Kiss the Star” suffered from unrequited love for John. I only checked the box because I figured Astá and Broos were some type of big couple, like beta readers have been saying, referencing Gone With the Wind.

knight in sour armorSo I got there late due to being unable to locate the room. Here they are talking about their favorite and/or least-favorite “romance tropes.” As seen on the beloved TV Tropes.org website. I think Broos and Astá might have belligerent sexual tension. Except they admit their feelings for each other and they do not actually fight, they just engage in who has the upper hand in each conversation/plot/plan. They’re involved in serious life and death business together, not Anime swordplay as depicted on the little illustration for this “trope.” The Knight in Sour Armor has a great picture – it’s a knight made out of lemons.

I’m willing to say there’s no “TV Trope” for Astá. I’ve been looking and she’s not a bitch, she’s not snarky, she’s not innocent, she’s not waiting to be saved; she is a mother and she is in love, and everything she knows and loves is at risk. Yeah, she’s damaged, but she’s still standing strong. She doesn’t let it affect her ability to trust and love.

Not one of these people on the panel could name a strong female heroine. An audience member brought up Honor Harrington, the primary character in the popular books by Baycon Guest of Honor David Weber. Honor’s apparently now in a triune marriage with a man and his disabled wife. When I asked if there were any popular romantic couples in which the female was significantly more powerful in practical terms than the male, an audience member suggested “Aurora in Four Voices” by Catherine Asaro, my friend who is one of the New People. Aurora is in love with some slacker artist chap.

So Bad Amy brought up Gone With the Wind. The more I think about this book, the more I realize that it’s the great American novel to date. It can stand to War & Peace. It has considerable things in common with that book and the other great Russian novels. Immediately, the moderator said “oh, it’s full of tropes.” Scarlett’s an “ice queen” or “ice bitch” or whatever. Rhett Butler is the “rogue with a heart of gold.” And this just torqued me off.

I’ve wasted an hour looking through that TV Trope site. And I see NOTHING regarding art or literature on it. It’s all stereotypical stuff. Art happens when it transcends stereotypes. Or “tropes.”

Let me put it in a way people can understand since our culture renders most incapable of understanding Scarlett O’Hara as one of the greatest female characters in all literature, for all of her dislikeable qualities. Margaret Mitchell tagged what it was to be a woman of power in a time in which that power was twisted, turned, negative, brutal, damaging. She tagged what my grandmother was; what I very nearly became. What TV Trope is Hamlet?

Is he the “Hamlet” trope? There isn’t one. There are superficial, non-comprehending “tropes” applied to Hamlet on this website. I loathe to quote Harold Bloom in a positive manner, but I will.

“We read to reflect and to be reflected,” Bloom said in 2003. “You can make of the play ‘Hamlet’ and the protagonist pretty much what you will, whether you are playgoer or reader, critic or director, actor or ideologue; push any stance or quest into it and the drama will illuminate what you have brought with you.”

Yes, of course you can write something about the “rogue with a heart of gold” or “the ice queen” or any of the other “tropes” on that website. As audience members pointed out, there is nothing negative inherent in the website or the concept of “tropes.” The only negative thing is that they reinforce “the expected.”

The expected is something that cannot recognize the great artistic achievement of a book like Gone With the Wind. It is a society incapable of comprehending the individual human nature and dignity of any woman — and only very seldom, the individual human nature and dignity of any man. Hamlet is one of the best examples of a fully-human character (as Bloom pointed out, and he also included Falstaff) I can think of and he has been around a very, very long time.

Bertha rochesterCelie, in The Color Purple, is she a trope? Or is she an individual with her own individual human voice and nature? What a nice trope that would be. Raped, semi-literate, abused black girl former slave. Nice trope huh? I recommended Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea to the audience. That book remains barely in print, as do most books written by females in earlier times of the 20th century (and to be fair – a number of excellent books by male authors as well). That book is about Creole Bertha Rochester, the mad woman in the attic from Jane Eyre. The mousy governess who gets the mysterious, tortured, dark and injured hero who is her true love: told as a bad trope ever since Jane Eyre, but in the book, a magnificent story. The vengeful madwoman in the attic who sets the house on fire: trope. Bertha in Wide Sargasso Sea – real woman. Oh, and Rochester is a brute. And he really always was, and how insightful of Jean Rhys to understand this. Bertha should never have left her island with him. He brutalized her and drove her to that attic of insanity.

That’s a picture of Bertha Rochester – a monster – torturing Jane Eyre in the night, a woodcut from the Fritz Eichenberg-illustrated edition of Jane Eyre. I had this book, and Wuthering Heights, also illustrated by him, while growing up. I read them many times, poring over and over these intense pictures.

The artist writes about real people. Typists write about tropes. Bad, bad Amy.

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Tropes Must Be True! — 10 Comments

  1. It is significant that TVTropes has TV in the title. You do not go to television for nuance or depth, by and large. Only in recent years has TV been able to move beyond catering to the broadest and lowest possible common denominator. (There is no miniseries version of HAMLET!)
    Over on Goodreads we’ve been quarreling about Rochester and Jane for some time — search on it and jump in! A contingent insists that he is a dreamboat; another faction points out his many creepy qualities. I am the one who slides in and points out that he is amazingly clement in his treatment of Bertha for his time, and that his society and culture absolutely cast him as a good guy.

    • No can find, Brenda – but I’m probably the worst Goodreads user ever – do you have a link? I found Rochester attractive when I was young despite the Fritz Eichenberg woodcuts that made him look about as pretty as Bertha (which still amazes me – that’s not even a person). Now? I think I’d probably come down on the creepy selfish bastard side.

  2. “Gone with the Wind” may be full of tropes. Only because that book created the tropes that newer books worked off of. The Moon Stone by Wilkie Collins is one long cliche of the Gothic Romance, only because it created the cliche later books copied.

    Must keep things in context. But the con panelists aren’t always looking at context.

    • Actually, Gone with the Wind is in certain respects in conversation with other stories, Scarlett O’Hara owing a great deal to Becky Sharpe of Vanity Fair.

      • Scarlett is one of a vast sisterhood of that period — women who balance the expectations of womanliness with the need to be who they are.

          • Yes, it’s really impossible to like Scarlett. I spent most of the book identifying with Rhett Butler, which, given what a bastard he is, shows the depth of my distaste for her.

            It occurs to me that Gone With the Wind is an example of a successful novel by a woman author about a very unsympathetic character. Might be worth taking it apart to see how she pulled it off. Surely no one who reads the book likes Scarlett.

            Of course, I’d have to re-read to analyze all that, and I don’t think I could stand to wade through all that racism and southern mythology again.

            • Over in a corner Sarah Zettel and I are closely analyzing another famously unlikeable female character, written by a female author. We shall report back.