I get it. Sometimes liking things is embarrassing.
I’ve certainly liked media that, for whatever reason, I keep an I-would-tell-you-but-then-I’d-have-to-kill-you policy on. But those are getting fewer and further between, honestly. Not because I’ve suddenly started liking things that are better quality. That is manifestly untrue.
I think it’s just that, sometimes, as you get older, you just have to learn to accept that you’re painfully uncool, and that that is never going to change.
I’m also very into discussing the things that I like, both in terms of trying to get other people to like them, too, and in terms of picking them apart with other people. And just like a mechanic taking apart all the pieces of a car and learning how they fit together, and how they work as a unit, it means I spend a lot of time picking apart the things I like to find out why I like them in the first place.
Flashback time. I was an insufferable teenager (people who have hung around this blog for a while know that well). I was the sort of baby-hipster teenager who didn’t like to like things that were cliché. I, at sixteen, had figured out your secrets, multi-billion-dollar-romance-and-action-movie-industries, and was Above being tricked by your Tricks.
This one has a few sides to it. Because yes, stories with a checkbox approach to their genres aren’t very compelling, and tend not to be very interesting to consume. But that often extends to a dislike or contempt for stories that contain tropes common in a genre, which is something different entirely.
Basically, it was me sitting down and saying “Boy, those romance tropes amirite?” while I loaded up my sixty-eighth Giant Mecha anime.
Because I could have told you exactly why each of those Giant Mecha anime were different from all the others, how they different from how people perceived Giant Mecha anime in general, all the ways it differed and deviated from the tropes. You know, all the things that romance readers and watchers can tell you about their favourite romance shows and movies, too.
And you can be 100% sure that if, by some miracle, I managed to find a romance show, movie or book that I liked, it was because it was “not like the others” and “wasn’t cliché and horrible”.
(If any of you are wondering if I’m playing up any of this for the purpose of making a point, I just need you to know that that is not the case. I sound like I’m strawmanning an elitist snob because teenage me was almost indistinguishable from a strawman elitist snob).
My point here isn’t to declare that All Clichés Are Good – trust me, the phrase “Things become clichés for a good reason”, said in a certain tone of voice, still has the power to make muscles clench that I keep forgetting I owned.
The point is: humans like being surprised by our stories. We like being given something new and told “here, experience this”. I doubt that even people who tend to read only one kind of genre fiction would actually like reading exactly the same story over and over again. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
But we’re also pattern-seeking creatures. Seeing how things relate makes the happy endorphins happen. This is why tropes exist – because we like seeing patterns in our stories, and when we latch onto certain things as a group, we tend to put them in our art, resulting in variations on themes. I feel like these get emphasised differently depending on whether you’re trying to deride or praise the work.
Which leads us on back to the original topic: don’t confuse ‘I like it’ with ‘it subverts tropes’. We tend to place such a high value on things that are game-changers and ground-breakers in art that sometimes, I think, we feel that if we like something, it can’t be just a retread of other tropes. So we end up with “You should check this out. It’s a fantasy book, but trust me, it’s not like other fantasy books!”
Sometimes, this is a good thing to do. I’ve introduced a few friends to stories this way. If you’re trying to keep things vague, it’s perfect. The fact that I once made a friend watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica by telling her nothing more than “It’s a Magical Girl anime, but just trust me, it’s not like most Magical Girl anime” should, for example, tell you that I’m a horrible person. It can also work if you’re introducing something that really is one of those ground-breaking works.
But I also often see it used to defend things that really don’t warrant it. “Sure, this character is the typical Old Mentor character with the death at the end and everything, but he’s a prankster rather than being serious, so it’s a subversion!”
That’s not a subversion. It’s a nice addition, but it’s flavour text. It’s a spin that makes a trope more interesting, not something that negates the presence of the trope itself.
And again, that’s OK! It’s fine to like things that have clichés in them. It’s OK to like specific clichés. It’s even OK to like them without trying to find a justification for it.