Log in

31 August 2011 @ 06:05 pm
On the prevalence of US tropes in storytelling  

[I've had this blog post in the queue for a bit, but was never in a position to publish it because I was too busy dealing with a zillion other things.
In case anyone is wondering, it's definitely NOT related to my two-week stay in the US (which was stupendous), but rather to an over-consumption of Hollywood movies and particularly horrendous US books that dates back to before Worldcon]

OK, I apologise in advance: this is going to be a bit of a rant. It’s going to be reductive, like all rants; ie it’s going to have a number of sweeping pronouncements that do not apply to individuals or individual groups. But…

In short, I’m tired of being invaded by US culture. I’m tired of US tropes being cited as the norm (even when it’s obvious that the rest of the world doesn’t follow such tropes), of bookshelves featuring translations from US writers and movies following standard Hollywood fare–of the one-way street which means the US sets the tune for the rest of the world, and that anything that looks remotely worthy from non-US countries is given a local remake for those who can’t stand to watch dubbed or subtitled movies (guess what–we watch dubbed/subtitled US movies all the time in France). I’m tired of the way US culture and tropes have so pervaded popular culture that we no longer even question them, or even recognise them–and, worse, that people outside the US are actively aping them in search of the so-called “universal stories” [1].

And before you ask, yes, I know those are tropes, and I know that not *all* US books/movies/series follow them, just like not all French books feature, say, bumbling bosses or people going on strike–and that not all groups or minorities in the US agree with those tropes. I’m just commenting on something that, for good or evil, the US has managed to export abroad (thank you, Hollywood) and therefore is the perception of US storytelling from my window, and the window of a great deal many people in the world.

I’m tired of plots that value individualism and egotism above all else; of heroes that always have to be the masters of their own fates, to be active and not take anything that life deals at them lying down (whereas most of the time, we lie down, we accept, we deal with what we have been given); of heroes that have to be strong and only take marginal help from others to solve their own problems; of heroes that have a destiny, and of movies and books in which breaking up with all traditions is good so long as one finds and follow one’s own path (there are a lot of cultures where breaking up with traditions isn’t necessarily a good thing, and no, this doesn’t mean that they’re evil and backward). I’m tired of how genre(s) put(s) a disproportionate value on heroes who are active and not passive (and, by extension, belittles and dismisses every use of passive voice, and always asks for sentences to be frenetically punchy); of how the most important thing that can happen to a person is to be “given their own story”, as stories weren’t made up of a mosaic of people all interacting together; of how teams exist only either as a background and foil for a single hero, or as a compendium of individuals, each fighting to be outdo each other in stupid displays of heroism (yes, X-men, I’m looking at you).

I’m tired of the casual acceptance of violence as a valid answer to anything, of the proliferation of guns in movies and books, of how it’s always acceptable to go face the bad guys with a sword or a pistol instead of seeking a peaceful resolve. I am sick of the redefinition of narrative as violence, of how everything has to be a conflict in order to be valid–even to the point of defining conflict “against yourself”, which contributes to trivialising the use of the word “conflict”, not to mention twist it far beyond its original meaning. I don’t want my stories to be only about blowing things up, or about good guys facing off bad guys, and dispatching them while stubbornly refusing to think about the ethics of killing, and the fact that the world seldom comes in black-and-white. I want violence to have consequences, both for those who have recourse to it, and for its victims; not to be something you can shrug off in the morning as if it never happened.

I don’t want stories in which the main character has to be sympathetic and with the moral high ground [2] in order to be worthwhile; in which people have to change in order for the plot to be significant; in which women exist only to be sidelined or as surrogate men. I don’t want stories that can be described in neat little boxes, or novels which can be reduced to a high concept and a series of story arcs (and, especially, I don’t want to hear about the Hero’s Journey, or the Three-Act Plot, or the Thirty-Six or Fifty-Five Basic Plots as if they were all some kinds of Holy Gospel). I want novels which can be complex and organic like life itself, and which don’t have to be neatly pigeon-holed in order to be read and enjoyed.

Also, I am tired of people assuming that US notions of racism and class apply everywhere in the world, including in Europe [3]; that minorities from the US are equivalent to and in the same situation as people from non-Western countries; that it’s always better morally speaking to say things bluntly, as long as they are truthful and heartfelt (where I come from–both sets of cultures–if you do that, you’re a lout and a boor. I was taught to always be graceful–which doesn’t mean you can’t be pointed and/or truthful when the situation calls for it. Sarcasm and pointed allusions are always part of my repertoire, and unless the person facing me is really thick, they’ll get that I’m annoyed/hurt/angry).

And, finally, here’s a bevy of tropes that are NOT universal:
-Serial killers obsessed with killing young women in titillating ways. Sorry, nope. That’s Ted Bundy legacy. Our most infamous French serial killers prayed on old women and killed for money.
-Superheroes. Seriously. Those people forming justice leagues and trying to save the world by battling supervillains? They’re a quintessential US trope, and no amount of retconning local figures such as Adèle Blanc-Sec into the framework is going to erase that fact. And yes, there are superheroes elsewhere, and some terrific stories involving them, but remember what I said about tropes being adopted abroad?
-US people coming to a foreign country and being more talented than the locals at solving their own problems (I’d cite books, but there are way too many of those). Bonus points in sarcasm if the book or movie completely fails to get the local culture right (again, I’d cite books, but way too many of those. We can start with how Dan Brown messed up Parisian geography in The Da Vinci code, and work up from there).
-Plots featuring America as the centre of the world, where aliens land near LA–and decisions are made in NYC for the entire world. Speaks for itself…

There is more, but I think I’ve ranted enough. Feel free to comment (but do play by the rules of civility). I will be around, but I’m a. moving flats and b. trying to focus on my writing at the moment, which means I might also be lagging a little behind…

[1]I’m not saying that the use of all those tropes equals crap stories–there are some very good stories out there that make use of them. I just want to point out that they’re hardly universal, and I’m personally in favour of other local tropes being used, rather than copying stuff from the US.
[2] Especially since “moral high ground” has different values for different people (I don’t think it’s bad to make the best of a bad situation, for instance, but there’s a subset of US tropes that think it’s far better to die while attempting to change said situation)
[3] Don’t mistake me. There is plenty of racism in France and in Europe. It just doesn’t follow the same fracture lines as in the US, and class is very much a bigger factor in France or in Europe than it is in the US. Also (and unlike the US), French racism hasn’t been so heavily shaped by discrimination against people of colour (we have racism against Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans–and our latest wave of racism is against Maghrebi, all of which are considered White by US standards), so the whole White/PoC dichotomy is just… not applicable as is where I live?
And finally, at least in France, ethnic identities are just not as strong as in the US, so people don’t identify themselves as “fifth-generation Chinese-French”, for instance. They’re just French. (We can argue about whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s a different dynamic).

(with many thanks to Tricia Sullivan, for encouraging me to put this into words and helping me with the first draft of this; and for Alisa Krasnostein, for sparking our twitter conversation on serial killers in mysteries)

(picture credits: Ami’s on flickr)

Cross-posted from Aliette de Bodard

Leave a comment at original post, or comment here.

Tanngrísnirtanngrisnir on August 31st, 2011 10:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this, it expresses so well how I have felt for some time. One trope you don't mention but I find particularly pernicious is the denigration of intellect and learning, the treatment of anyone who reads books and can converse polysyllabically as weird and/or risible. Sadly, this seems to be infecting popular culture in Britain. (Here via Twitter, BTW.)
aberwynaberwyn on September 1st, 2011 02:45 am (UTC)
Now that is an actual American trope! I hate it, too.
(no subject) - aliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 06:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Cécilececile_c on August 31st, 2011 10:28 pm (UTC)
All of this. Yes.

One thing that's particularly disturbing is how some Hollywood are downright offensive to whole groups of people (foreigners or others), who are not even part of that culture, and who nonetheless accept them as if it was the normal way things should be, even though those clichés amount to poking someone in the eye and then running away overseas. Non-exhausive list of what has pissed me off recently:

-Splitting the world between Anglophones and idiots who can't understand English, and/or just plainly not acknowledging that there are other languages in the world (like making foreigners speak between themselves in English, but with a stupid accent),

-Asserting that the ultimate goal in life is to Be Yourself (whatever that is supposed to be...), as long as Being Yourself corresponds to following an accepted social norm like becoming a rockstar or going on a road trip (you can't be a classical studies geek, or too poor to go on a road trip, and be yourself. That just doesn't work.),

-Showing a ruthless chase across a marketplace in Asia or Africa or South America, with both heroes and villains sending the locals' selling goods flying all over the place while the locals in question run around shouting like outraged chickens, or a chase on a motorway that ends up crashing dozens of cars, or any other way of inflicting horrible damage upon innocent bystanders as casually as you'd kick a pile of dead leaves,

-Answering difficult moral questions with a deus ex machina or two and a subtle "YES" or "NO", even when history in other parts of the worls has proved how difficult it was to answer those questions (like the good ol' "is it all right to sacrifice a few people for the greater good?", or others),

-Equating good-looking with interesting (at least that's how I interpret the fact that an ugly actor and especially actress is doomed in Hollywood)

aberwynaberwyn on August 31st, 2011 11:07 pm (UTC)
I'm afraid two of your tropes are British, not American in origin: the foreign marketplace chase and the denigration of non-English speakers.

(no subject) - cecile_c on September 1st, 2011 09:00 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 06:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 06:35 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - nancylebov on September 3rd, 2011 07:00 pm (UTC) (Expand)
kythiaranos: don't let me fallkythiaranos on August 31st, 2011 10:28 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this thoughtful post. I think it's fair to say that even some of us in the US are frustrated and dismayed by the cultural hegemony you're talking about. It isn't even a good representation of how *I* feel, never mind anyone outside my country.

Keep speaking up. One thing I loved about your first novel--as I think I told you--is that you did a great job of not filtering your characters through a modern lens.
aberwynaberwyn on August 31st, 2011 10:36 pm (UTC)
My real point, I think, is that these supposedly American tropes have been common in popular literature for years and years. A lot of them come from British popular literature.

Am I the only person here who's actually read BULLDOG DRUMMOND? Glorifies the hero who uses violence to solve problems no end, and it was a British book published back in the 1920s. Consider the Fu Manchu books, as well.
eleanoreleanorb on September 1st, 2011 06:02 am (UTC)
Perhaps the issue is that US storytelling, particularly on tv and in film, has not, in the main, moved on from late-Victorian tropes and sensibilities. Wheras, in many other countries these ideas have only been a passing fashionable phase or are simply one of the options.
(no subject) - autopope on September 1st, 2011 09:37 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - kateelliott on September 1st, 2011 06:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - joycemocha on September 4th, 2011 04:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx on September 4th, 2011 09:11 pm (UTC) (Expand)
history_monkhistory_monk on August 31st, 2011 11:37 pm (UTC)
Yes, and yes and yes... You've put into words, elegantly, much of what underlies the frustration that hits me in dealing with the naif Americans who live within their own mythology and can't conceive of any other. A Chinese-dominated world might have a bit more subtlety.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 06:44 pm (UTC)
Yes, it's the "cannot conceive of any other" that scares me, the only right path that a lot of Americans believe in.
Though I suspect the Chinese would quite happily be as singled-minded (Confucianism isn't exactly known for its openness of mind...)
(no subject) - joycemocha on September 4th, 2011 04:39 pm (UTC) (Expand)
bemused_leftistbemused_leftist on August 31st, 2011 11:56 pm (UTC)
For a great detailed example of what Hollywood tropes can do to a British book, see Andrew Rilstone's review of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 06:43 pm (UTC)
Oh, wow. That was an awesome review. Thanks for pointing it out!
aberwynaberwyn on September 1st, 2011 02:46 am (UTC)
I've asked this over in my LJ, but thanks to technical difficulties, I've had to "friend-lock" this question:

If these allegedly American tropes annoy you all so much, what are the tropes with which you'd like to replace them?
eleanoreleanorb on September 1st, 2011 05:51 am (UTC)
I think part of the issue is that many people don't want or need a 'shortlist' of common tropes. It is, as some people have said above, culturally and imaginatively restrictive. The US cultural 'one size fits all' hegemony is the problem and simply adding half a dozen options isn't the solution.

Saying that, the one I'd most like to lose is the violent action hero who is outside the law and who faces no consequences for his actions. Yes, as you've said above there are, for instance, British heroes such as Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay. But, even taken that theses are very dated, the tone is very different. These are men well aware of society, politics and there place in it. They are concerned about the consequences of their actions and they will be called to justify them. Leaving out James Bond, which is a US interpretation anyway, compare British spy stories, with their quiet understated politically based action (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Page Eight) with the US equivalents where only George Clooney seems to acknowledge any subtlety in relation to the wider world. The US prevalent trope is that bang, bang not talk, talk is always the best and often the only solution, particularly when dealing with fractious foreigners.

Also compare even the very best of US adaptations of overseas drama - The Killing. The US version is shorter, far less subtle, far more single character focussed. It prioritises action over debate or character development, which isn't how the original works at all.

So if you really wanted to add new tropes I'd include:

The world isn't black and white, nor are people.

Violence is an option of final, not primary, resort.

Action has real consequences, even for primary characters

Individuals can commit acts of heroism but no one is a hero.
(no subject) - autopope on September 1st, 2011 09:42 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - eleanorb on September 1st, 2011 09:48 am (UTC) (Expand)
What? - alwaysoptimistc on September 8th, 2011 12:56 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - cecile_c on September 1st, 2011 09:55 am (UTC) (Expand)
Kevin J. Maroneywomzilla on September 1st, 2011 03:08 am (UTC)
A datum that rises not even to the level of the quibble: The superhero team, which originated in America in 1939; the writer of the first such story, Gardner Fox, said he was inspired by the Knights of the Round Table and by Charlemagne's paladins. Before that, of course, was the Argonautica; like the Arthurian stories, this was an accretion of individual hero-stories into a single team narrative.

Hmm. Now I find myself wondering how many of the heroes of the Iliad had pre-existing stories that have been lost to the years?

Anyway, I agree with you strongly about the homogenization of story, and of the particular awful tendencies of the stories that come out at the end of that process. Thanks!
Liz: Criminal Minds JJ what you had to dohawkwing_lb on September 1st, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC)
how many of the heroes of the Iliad had pre-existing stories that have been lost to the years?

Many of them. Consider the Argonautica, which involves the heroes of the previous generation, and mention gets made as well (not necessarily in the Argonautica) of the exploits of Priam as a young man, Nestor, Menelaus, Agamemnon, wily Odysseus.

The Iliad isn't a great example, because many of the main participants were explicitly young men: Achilles is young enough that he could be sent by his mother to hide among the women, when she didn't want him going. The foundation legends of many of the Greek poleis, though, frequently involve returning Homeric heroes.

...Sorry. I'm a geek.
(no subject) - tj_dragon on September 2nd, 2011 09:01 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 06:45 pm (UTC) (Expand)
scamisscamis on September 1st, 2011 04:19 am (UTC)
I agree with you about the annoyance value of those tropes. Like some other folks, I'm not sure they're necessarily "American"...but they sure are Hollywood-business-model. I suspect that the American movies that aren't like that mostly don't get wide distribution. Likewise, the movies I get to see from other countries tend to not play in the big multiplexes, but in the smaller "art" theaters. The financial aspect of that tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As for that "heartfelt" thing...I tend to think of it as a California trait (based on some of the Californians I know). It has it's merits, but is certainly not the only or best way to deal with all situations. I'm from the US South, where people are subtle. Which apparently some people read as "insincere." Or, curiously, "stupid."

I can see the stuff you're talking about, but I don't think of it as typical of American culture...just a certain subset. It does bug me that the ActionAdventureDestiny (tm) crap seems to dominate the genres I write in, and therefore I often get criticisms of my stories back that amount to "your protagonist needs to be more active/take charge more, there need to be more twists and excitement,"....and so on. Sometimes from an editor who wants to publish, so I suck it up and rewrite. But I read this review of "That Only A Mother" by Judith Merril, in which the writer asserts that the story doesn't stand the test of time because it's not surprising and twisty enough. He also thought it was unclear what was wrong with the child or what happened to her. My thought when I read the review was, "You so do not get that story, dude."

Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 06:47 pm (UTC)
Yes, lots of people mentioned that upstream: there's probably tons of other narratives in the US, but they don't make it past the marketing department (if they even get that far...). The problem is that, seen from abroad, the US resolves into Hollywood monoculture, which is... embarrassing?

Though the prevalent narrative kind of fails to explain why the US as a whole remains so closed to foreign influences such as translated books or movies--I think it would be very helpful for the country to have an infusion of other cultures, but I don't know why it's not happening?
(no subject) - scamis on September 2nd, 2011 07:11 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - delux_vivens on September 13th, 2011 08:19 pm (UTC) (Expand)
asakiyume: hummingbirdasakiyume on September 1st, 2011 04:32 am (UTC)
My goodness! I enjoyed this tremendously and feel heartily cheered by it. A few things in particular:

I don’t want stories in which ... people have to change in order for the plot to be significant

--thank you for this! I've found this requirement to be mystifying; I'm so happy to think that elsewhere in the world, people don't necessarily feel this way.

I am tired of people assuming that US notions of racism and class apply everywhere in the world, including in Europe [3]; that minorities from the US are equivalent to and in the same situation as people from non-Western countries; that it’s always better morally speaking to say things bluntly, as long as they are truthful and heartfelt (where I come from–both sets of cultures–if you do that, you’re a lout and a boor. I was taught to always be graceful–which doesn’t mean you can’t be pointed and/or truthful when the situation calls for it. Sarcasm and pointed allusions are always part of my repertoire, and unless the person facing me is really thick, they’ll get that I’m annoyed/hurt/angry).

--Oh YES. Every single piece of this, I've experienced, but have felt much too diffident to say. Thank you very much for saying EACH PART of that paragraph.

at least in France, ethnic identities are just not as strong as in the US, so people don’t identify themselves as “fifth-generation Chinese-French”, for instance. They’re just French.

--I experienced this living in Japan, decades ago. I lived in an international house, and one of my friends was French. Ethnically, she was Chinese; she was born in Tahiti and grew up in New Caledonia, and came to France for college. But for her, what was important was that she was French. It was only in talking about her to American friends that I realized how, for Americans, it mattered and was important to say some of the background stuff.

(a number of people mentioned your post; that's how I come to be commenting here)

Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 06:56 pm (UTC)
He, thanks for dropping by!
I know nearly all French people think that identifying yourself by ethnicity is weird; though thanks to the exportation of US tropes, our anti-racism movements are starting to model themselves on the US (which, as you might have guessed, I don't approve of--I'm all for anti-racism, but it doesn't seem smart to use principles evolved in another country with a situation that's quite different).
eleanoreleanorb on September 1st, 2011 05:54 am (UTC)
I am tired of people assuming that US notions of racism and class apply everywhere in the world, including in Europe [3]; that minorities from the US are equivalent to and in the same situation as people from non-Western countries;

This is the one that gets me into more arguments on the net than anything else. The notion that my experience and my notions are or should be yours, regardless of how poorly they fit.And worse, if your culture doesn't see race/gender/class/minorities in the same way as me then you, your country and your tv shows are racist/sexist...etc.
aberwynaberwyn on September 2nd, 2011 02:24 am (UTC)
Ah, but the reverse is also true: since US films don't share the views of other cultures, they get slammed for being racist, sexist, etc. I am getting tired of discussions that accuse Americans of lacking cultural sensibility -- and then lay into Americans in a very unsensitive way.

I gather we're the only fair game target.
(no subject) - eleanorb on September 2nd, 2011 05:06 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 06:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on September 1st, 2011 10:13 am (UTC)
Only just saw this, but on reflection, I think the tropes that you cite are very largely "third world adolescent" ones, rather than American, and that Hollywood as a centre of production has simply shifted to provide a product that will sell to a global market and be readily adaptable to DVD and gaming tie-ins. My kid brother has recently posted a review of the new Conan movie, in which he points out that the structure of the Conan remake follows the exact same structure as an Xbox game, a linear journay arranged in a series of levels in each of which Conan kills the end-of-wave monster and collects the plot token before he can move on to a new level - whereas the earlier Conan movie featured a lone hero, OK, but also bits of Nietzschean philosophy and other bits of non-game related filmmaking, because it predated the Xbox market, so there was no money to be made from global tie-ins. Whereas nowadays, these would probably constitute the bulk of the projected profits from the film, when the producer is costing up whether to give it the green light.

The cheapest tropes to market globally are the simplest; violence, gorgeous pliant women, guns, wordless slapstick (I have seen the spilled-vegetable chase in plenty of Hong Kong movies) and therefore, this is where the money will lie, no matter what nation originated the trope. Blaming Americans for this is like blaming them for junk food - they're just a mercantile culture who've exploited it better than anyone else, but it's not as though the rest of humanity doesn't have a taste for sugar, salt and palm oil.

Hilary Wade
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 07:02 pm (UTC)
Hum, I sort of agree with you? I've said it above, but I'm not saying those are uniquely US tropes, or even tropes that originated in the US; but that they get associated to the US because Hollywood is so gleefully propagating them abroad. Also, there is a different sensitivity to, say, violence, in the Hong Kong movies I've watched, and a way of presenting it that is at least slightly country specific--violence as a successful selling argument is probably universal, indeed (or at least, suitable for the male half of humanity), but easy recourse and remorseless to violence doesn't seem to happen as much in, say, French movies? (we tend to get all guilted up about it).
And, much as I love Hong Kong movies, I can't really say they've been exported quite as much as Hollywood drek...
barry_king: Who Gnu?barry_king on September 1st, 2011 03:37 pm (UTC)
If you go to the Museum of American History (one of the Smithsonian museums on the mall in DC), you will probably notice that it isn't the history of the U.S., exactly, that is on display. Instead, it is the history of technology, a collection of all the machines that made and continues to make the nation. The expansion westward is largely the story of the railroad. The Civil War and the end of slavery are largely about a shift in technology of governance and industrial production. I think that says something fundamental about the U.S., that it's a outward-looking technological process. By its nature, it's bent on assimilation. Globalization and the Internet are simply the continuation of this assimilation by transnational means.

But it's important to be aware that an assimilator has no interest in the material being assimilated, that the knowing the other is via the transformation/normalization of the other into the self, the commoditization of the raw material. So all Stargate worlds speak english, the fate of galaxies hinge on a handful of individuals, unknown things only gain value when our hero puts his stamp on them in some way, and the stranger is inferior and can never be trusted until he conforms to our cultural norm.

It's sad, because these are very dull stories. Football games of fiction.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 07:03 pm (UTC)
I think that says something fundamental about the U.S., that it's a outward-looking technological process. By its nature, it's bent on assimilation.
Wow. Can I be scared now? That explains a lot of things, but it's really not helping my general paranoia and frustration...
And awesome remark about assimilation, thanks!
(no subject) - scamis on September 2nd, 2011 07:24 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Sara: please don'tthemeadowlark on September 1st, 2011 05:47 pm (UTC)
Very interesting post! And thanks in particular for the book recommendations in the early comments.

Speaking as a US citizen, I have felt the lack of foreign media available in the US. I remember I used to watch the Japanese language channel (all dubbed) when I was a kid, and really enjoying it. Somehow, it feels to me that even though my 'options' for television have expanded (my super basic cable package has over 1000 channels), my options for foreign media have either shrunk or been hidden/overwhelmed by all the noise. Foreign movies are available on Netflix, but usually only as dvds by mail, very rarely as instant streaming. I'm not saying the media is unavailable, but I do think that it is very discouraged in the sense of: american media: super over-available at any second, foreign media generally has to be hunted out and worked for. As any behavioral economist will tell you, things like this really do affect peoples choices on a day to day basis.

Thanks for inspiring the conversation :)
aberwynaberwyn on September 2nd, 2011 02:27 am (UTC)
Living where I do in the US (San Francisco) I assure you that "foreign" media are easily available in some places. Like here. Regular TV channels in Chinese, not cable I mean, but regular TV whatever that's really called. All sorts of non-English packages on the cable. Lots of movie theaters, lots of radio stations, etc.

The question really is: how big is the market for certain kinds of programming? Where there's a market, the programming exists. Yes, perhaps it's crass, but TV and movies are ruled by market considerations no matter what country they're made in.
(no subject) - themeadowlark on September 5th, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - themeadowlark on September 5th, 2011 05:36 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - themeadowlark on September 5th, 2011 05:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
kara_gnomekara_gnome on September 2nd, 2011 11:01 am (UTC)
I think part of our problem is that we're deluded with a poor education system and laziness regarding actually learning anything that can't fit on a Post-It and then manipulated by a social egotism that is truly frightening--we're the best, greatest, etc, etc, etc and other wildly embarrassing hoo-rahs. Or frightening, depending, and not just about our weaponry and military, but our absolute conviction that we've got a real bead on the afterlife. Plain weird, imho.

A great post, so many interesting things.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 07:08 pm (UTC)
The social egotism is scary (I've commented before on the tendency of a certain subset of the US to refer to themselves as "the world", as in "world's best ketchup", "world's leading newspapers"--whereas in reality it's anything but).
(no subject) - tj_dragon on September 2nd, 2011 09:09 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - joycemocha on September 4th, 2011 04:46 pm (UTC) (Expand)
pingback_botpingback_bot on September 2nd, 2011 01:44 pm (UTC)
Question and linkdump
User shadesong referenced to your post from Question and linkdump saying: [...] * on the prevalence of US tropes in storytelling [...]
Spiderinespiderine on September 2nd, 2011 02:20 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this. As a native of the USA who tries not to be an asshole, it's helpful to read the details of a more global perspective. It's difficult to do so properly in the USA for the exact reasons you state, and it gives me a lot to think about and notice in the future.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 07:09 pm (UTC)
He, thank you for reading!
(it's always difficult to analyse your own tropes within the country, particularly if all you get through the media are the same tropes filtered over and over. I can't analyse French tropes, but I'm pretty sure we've got plenty of nasty ones too The only difference is that they stay in France...)
.color_blue on September 2nd, 2011 04:13 pm (UTC)
I really like this post; thanks for making it!
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 07:09 pm (UTC)
:-) Thanks for dropping by!
damonshawdamonshaw on September 2nd, 2011 04:59 pm (UTC)
Well done for generating so much interesting chattage. I like the way you have been developing these ideas. Have you let this "philosophy" feed into your trilogy at all? Or does all your work reflect your ideas above? Have you found that works you have written outside these tropes you mention had a harder time selling?
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 2nd, 2011 07:12 pm (UTC)
>Have you found that works you have written outside these tropes you mention had a harder time selling?
Uh, I don't really know how it plays into my writing, which is a weird mix of all the stuff I've read. I don't think I'm using those tropes, or at any rate that they're not my first port of call, but it's hard to say... My trilogy is probably a bad example, as it's set in a warrior culture (so there goes the violence), and centred on a single character. I've had more success in the multi-POV alternate-hist thriller, where I have a better ensemble cast, and a saner attitude on violence and its cost (though I also have characters who have no trouble advocating its use when everything has failed).
Mark A.feste_sylvain on September 2nd, 2011 08:17 pm (UTC)
As an American, I find what you say here enlightening. In many of these, I already agreed with you, but one thing in particular jumped out:

I’m tired of plots that value individualism and egotism above all else; of heroes that always have to be the masters of their own fates, to be active and not take anything that life deals at them lying down

I really can't think otherwise. As an exercize, I could attempt to write a story... no, I couldn't. To accept things as they are is the antithesis of a story to me.

I have nothing against cooperation, nothing against real teamwork or the synergy of souls, but even that should not subsume the primacy of the individual. To me. An American.

I do not necessarily believe that I should defend this position. But it's quite enlightening just how deeply it runs in me.
une idee fixeideealisme on September 3rd, 2011 12:05 pm (UTC)
I hear what you are saying. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro stood out for me because it deliberately avoided this trope, which surprised me - just shows how common it is.
(no subject) - aliettedb on September 4th, 2011 10:12 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx on September 4th, 2011 09:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
une idee fixeideealisme on September 3rd, 2011 12:10 pm (UTC)
Interesting post. I also find that I dislike the stereotype of a sole woman's maidenhead being more precious than an entire civilisation or nation of people. I don't know if this is solely American, but it makes me grind my teeth when a Lone Male Quest Narrative Traveller interrupts his journey to rescue a vulnerable woman under threat from other men. I am thinking specifically of 28 Days Later, a British film directed by an Englishman, where Cillian Murphy's character rescues the Vulnerable Young Girl from the ravages of Christopher Eccleston's band of soldiers and therefore breaking down the boundaries of the one place where the fatal horrific virus hasn't got to, yet.

Honestly, if it really were the future of a nation at stake? I could take it for the team (particularly Christopher Eccleston as opposed to some mere drink-of-water compatriot.) Don't rescue me unless I f**king well request it, please.

I'd be more impressed if the Lone Male rescued women past the age of reproduction with the same vigour and determination. Otherwise how is he any better than the villains since his motives are the same?

/Here endeth my rant.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 4th, 2011 10:14 am (UTC)
He. The whole woman's maidenhead thing is a hoary (and annoying) trope, but I wonder if it's really an American trope today...
And yes, I am totally in favour of the Lone Male rescuing women past the childbearing age. That would make for way more interesting movies.
(no subject) - green_knight on September 4th, 2011 11:37 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - killiara on September 7th, 2011 11:12 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Nick Mamatasnihilistic_kid on September 3rd, 2011 04:16 pm (UTC)
One example I like to use in discussions of violence as the answer is Kung Fu Hustle. Tons of (comical) violence in it, but the solution ultimately isn't the vanquishing of the "bad guy" at all, but his reassimilation into the social order by becoming the student of the man who defeated him.*

*Yes, this does make the film seem a lot heavier than it actually is, but it's cool.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 4th, 2011 10:15 am (UTC)
Ooh, good example, thanks! I had forgotten about Kung Fu Hustle, but yes, it does have a very idiosyncratic approach to violence that isn't the Hollywood way.
(no subject) - nihilistic_kid on September 4th, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
bnbalderbnbalder on September 3rd, 2011 05:37 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Aliette. As a fellow European and a Dutchwoman this puts into words what I've often felt.
While at the same time, I love many things about US culture and am trying to get published over there. And that's just how people are, capable of keeping two completely opposite views in their heads at the same time without blinkin.....
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 4th, 2011 10:15 am (UTC)
:-) If we were consistent human beings, I think we'd know...
Akaihyoakaihyo on September 3rd, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC)
As a US citizen, I notice a lot of these tropes and often criticize them as they just make for narrow (and often poor) storytelling. There is no universal right way for a story, no tropes that are always right, but the American mainstream often squeezes out everything else. Which makes for annoying blandness far too often.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 4th, 2011 10:17 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's my main beef with the American mainstream (at least those bits that we see). The blandness, the sameness, the recycling of old, worn tropes. Which I'm sure is not necessary, as there are so many wonderful things out there, both in the US and in other countries.
Thanks for dropping by!
The Green Knight: Writinggreen_knight on September 4th, 2011 09:20 am (UTC)
The 'hero goes to foreign country/culture and sorts out all their problems' is part of a wider tradition where it seems that you can only report on another culture through the eyes of a person like your readers. So if you report about homeless people, you ask the white middle-class social worker/priest/person who had spent a night on the streets, and if you report about any country other than yours, you send one of your reporters there or find someone who has lived in the country for a bit, whether they speak the language or not. (The Daily Mail famously sent their price socialite to report on the famine in Somalia - because a stinking rich Westerner with an entitlement complex is exactly what the situation needs, apparently.) In books, this leads to the protagonist feeling superior/being grossed out by 'local' customs; and often being willing to wreak havoc to the local social system in the knowledge that *they* won't have to live with the consequences in years to come.

I'm ambivalent about the 'protagonist must be active' thing. I can see books that fall outside the trope, but I personally like it. I don't see being a protagonist as 'must solve all problems, quite possibly with force' but rather as 'engaging with problem, carving out a niche for oneself, taking steps to cope with the situation and if possible protect other people from negative consequences.' Coming to terms with a lousy hand dealt by life and making the best of it *is* 'being active'.

And while we're venting our spleens, I'd like to express my disdain for the rise of the short novel - some of them are excellent, of course, but novels where one protagonist with a couple of minions, and a love interest of the opposite gender battles something evil in an arc that piles more and more problems on them to be overcome in one final push against the odds - it sometimes seems as if this has become _the_ novel. Which, for those of us who want to write or read other narratives is rather unsatisfactory.
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on September 4th, 2011 10:19 am (UTC)
I think a lot of it boils down to the definition of "active", yes. Taking part in the story definitely fits the bill for me, but it often gets reduced to your "must solve problems", which is the one I disagree with.
I hear what you say about short novels (and I think there's got to be a way to exploit the form otherwise than caricatures, though...)
(no subject) - green_knight on September 4th, 2011 12:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx on September 4th, 2011 06:43 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - green_knight on September 5th, 2011 09:46 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx on September 6th, 2011 08:24 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - brainwane.dreamwidth.org on December 25th, 2011 04:24 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aliettedb on December 26th, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC) (Expand)