TV Tropes, fans and media analysis: Part 1

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.

11224175-maycontainevilThen 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.”

world_war_two_170In 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.


4 thoughts on “TV Tropes, fans and media analysis: Part 1

  • August 1, 2014 at 1:03 PM

    To me, TVTropes was always less about the tropes, and more about the works you can discover through it. Without it, I would never have found Iji, a 100% free game that is nevertheless one of the best I played, and there are other examples. When I edit the website, it’s to add new works (usually games, though sometimes films or books) or to cross-wick (cross-link in trope-speak) the existing works with tropes, and thus introduce more people to them.

    I never really thought of the site as something that would allow you to create a perfect story: on the contrary, I found its main use was in knowing which tropes you DON’T want in your story. Their “Hollywood X” and other such tropes can be incredibly useful if you want realism in your story, and avoid things like characters surviving limb shots without prompt medical treatment. Some might even be life-saving: I had no idea of how to spot a drowning person before I read their Hollywood Drowning page:

    And if you think the World War II article is bad, trust me, you don’t want to go to the Korean War or the North Korea article 🙁 However, these articles are filed under “Useful Notes” instead of the mainspace for a very good reason: they are not trying to describe these events in terms of tropes, but rather are about showing the works influenced by those events. Nothing helps you understand why a transparent stand-in for Auschwitz or Osama bin Laden in, say, sci-fi is hackery of the highest order like an article about that very thing within easy reach. That is the ostensible purpose of those articles: the execution can be a different matter because not many people are interested, which allows for transparent bias to creep through (again, the Korean articles.)

  • July 31, 2014 at 2:36 PM

    I’m not sure what the failing of TVTropes is in your view. If it doesn’t claim analysis as part of its mission, then it can’t fail at it, any more than a car can fail at being a spaceship; it just isn’t a spaceship. If all it claims to do is categorize a certain type of observable information and succeeds at that, then it’s a success.

    I should disclose that I am an active tinkerer on the site, more towards cleanup than creation of entries, so I may have a more current knowledge base. For instance, the site has generated many types of subpages for works, both ones that are still document tropes such as Character pages and others that list events or reactions such as Funny pages, which are aside from the main mission of the site but were desired.

    One of the subcategories is Analysis, where essays are allowed towards that goal (for other readers: TVTropes consists mostly of bulletpointed entries made in one depersonalized voice, so essays are usually not allowed), and to the extent of my knowledge it contains the correct type of analysis as you are explaining. You should be able to search Tvtropes Analysis and find it if you wish.

    • Lynn Bachman
      August 1, 2014 at 6:11 AM

      You’re right that TV Tropes doesn’t claim to be analysis, and I have no problem with the concept of the site. I just feel that some people overuse it to the point that they just see all media as a collection of tropes, and that’s how they analyze it. I don’t think that’s a good way to look at things.

      Not only that, I feel that it’s inappropriate to view real-life events as a collection of tropes as well. That World War II page made me very uncomfortable. It’s not the way you should study history.

      I’ll take another look at the TV Tropes analysis stuff. From what I last saw of it it was just long paragraphs examining the work in the context of its tropes.

      • August 5, 2014 at 8:07 PM

        Okay, I can agree with that. There are definitely people who forget that tropes are tools, not puzzle pieces, and pointing out all the tools used to make a piece of media is not the same as understanding the media.

        I disagree with the characterization of real life tropes, though that may be a matter of perspective- I mostly see them isolated on trope pages, not collected on the Useful Note pages. I’ve also had a lifelong interest in history so I may have significantly different background knowledge going in.

        Your recollection may be correct. I’ve not been a big browser of the analysis pages, but I saw a couple when I was double checking before making my post that were exactly like that.

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