When I was in college, I had an English professor who gave her students some advice I still try to stand by to this day.
“Don’t just summarize the material,” she’d say. “We’ve both read the book. We both know what happens. What I want to know is what you think of it. Why did that happen? What does it mean? That’s analysis.”
I wrote a lot of papers for her classes, and every time I tried to stick to that idea. It was hard. I often felt like I didn’t know anything (not a good situation to be in when you’re studying Shakespeare, which is hard enough to just read in the first place). But I got through it, and in doing so, learned a lot of valuable skills about media analysis.
Then I graduated and found that nobody really seems to care about that stuff, and that’s why I write for newspapers instead of academic journals. But there is one other place where your skill in analysis is valued, and that’s fandom.
At least, that’s what I want to say. Certainly, most fans display a willingness to engage with the material they consume, since part of being a fan is having an interest and passion in something.
It’s just that… not all fans are English majors. So often, when I search fan communities for media analysis, the results I find are, well, a bit lacking in the analysis part.
I’ve seen three major ways fans get the idea of analysis wrong. This post will cover the first of them, which I like to call “categorization.”
Does anyone remember a site called TV Tropes? Basically, it’s a place where people categorize things. Let me explain, using the words of the site itself.
“This wiki is a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction. Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.”
In other words, it’s a list of categories of things that recur in media presentation. Or anything, really, at this point. Did you know that the “Those Wacky Nazis” and “The Final Solution” tropes came from World War II? It says so on their World War II page.
… Do you see a problem there? Hold on, let me keep going.
A few years ago, if you were a fan of anything, it was everywhere you went. Everywhere. That site sucked all notions of time and space out of your brain. Clicking a TV Tropes link was akin to stepping into a black hole. Every little detail of every bit of your favorite show was duly written down and notified. The site is like Wikipedia’s deranged cousin.
It is not analysis. It is an endless litany of, “This is what happened, and this is what happened, and this is what happened.”
That’s good for some things— TV Tropes has the most comprehensive list of media I’ve seen on the internet, and it’s also really good for sorting out stories which aren’t told chronologically, or are executed in a confusing way. If you want the what, you’ve got it. But looking at things through the lens of a trope is never going to get you past that first step.
Sometimes, what’s important isn’t the what, it’s the meaning. This is most obvious when TV Tropes tries to tackle the stuff with no clear-cut explanation. How did Dave turn into a giant space baby? On which side did the top fall? Can you make any sort of logical sense out of End of Evangelion?
The answer? Oh My God it doesn’t matter. I feel kind of ridiculous saying this, but sometimes it isn’t about logic. It just isn’t.
Tropes are not puzzle pieces that you link together to make a story. They’re just part of the many things that work together to create art. And once you start applying them to how the world works (such as the World War II stuff from above), you’ve lost me. That’s where TV Tropes has left me cold. I haven’t been there in years now.
Some people from the TV Tropes community believe that with a good knowledge of tropes, it’s possible to create your own, perfect story, one that can hit all the right buttons with fans and get instantly popular.
Honestly, I find that insulting. It seems like an uninteresting and shallow way to view entertainment that can change people’s lives.