I’ve had nightmares about this, to be honest with you. Today we’re going to get into something that is pretty peripheral to anime–namely, a site that catalogs it (and many other things). TVTropes.org.
It’s a very weird task to be asked to consider TVTropes objectively. I am technically not being asked, of course, but part of being a small-time blogger is pretending people are asking you things so you have an excuse to write about them. Let’s cut to the chase; the reason this post exists is because this tweet is currently making the rounds on twitter. Sometimes with additional commentary or rebuttals, sometimes without. Yes this is a long-form blogpost that is (partly) in response to a tweet. I know, new media is hell for me too.
All jokes aside it is hard to call OliveAmulets’ claims wrong per se, but I don’t know I’d call them quite correct either. TVT has something of a history of being treated as a freaks n’ geeks gallery by outsiders. I don’t know offhand if Olive has any extensive history with the site, but the tone of her tweet makes me think not. Even if she does, this is a general attitude I want to talk about, more than that single tweet specifically.
I used the site religiously throughout my high school years (that’d be roughly 2008-2012 if you’re curious). I was an active part of the forums (yes, TVT had forums, we’ll be getting to that. Unfortunately.) I still occasionally edit articles, albeit mostly to fix spelling mistakes or remove blatant lies (we’ll be getting to that too). So I am very much “on the inside” of TVT, though I haven’t used the term “troper” to describe myself in years and I think you’d have to put a gun to my head to make me do it nowadays.
I will start with a major concession; it is basically impossible to argue that TVTropes has any serious merit as a critical tool. I have only very rarely seen people actually attempt to argue that, but it has happened, and the sentiment is out there. TVTropes’ modus operandi is to break stories down into their most basic cultural units, and catalog them. This is at best a sloppy and imperfect way to deal with art, but that is what the site seeks to do, and it does it as best it can.
Why? Well, the main mistake I feel a lot of outsiders make in dealing with TVT is assuming that there even is a “why”. The site itself has a dedicated “Trivia” tab, but the entire thing is trivia. There is no actual point to any of this, much as individual tropers and groups thereof over the years have tried to make it have one. I think TVTropes works best as an idle time-burner. Which is not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it’s the truth. If I can offer the concerned reader any modicum of comfort, it’s that whatever purpose you imagine TVTropes might try to have is unachievable by virtue of the site being home to countless nerds, which by extension, means it is home to every kind of nerd imaginable, and they are all actively working against each other at all times.
I don’t, however, mean to simply write the entire thing off as entirely harmless. I don’t agree with the idea that TVT actively promotes media illiteracy, but if the site is used by someone who already feels that all art is just a meaningless parade of aesthetic signifiers–and that is a thing that many nerds in the late 2000s believed, specific website they used notwithstanding–the site is not going to do anything to dissuade them of that notion.
To wit; one of the most memorable characters in my mind on the TVTropes forums was a fellow with a giant drawing of an ass as an avatar who believed that studying the arts on any level beyond ranking Tarantino movies was fundamentally ridiculous. He would often spout off about how schools funding art, literature, or music classes was “a crime”, blah blah. You know the type. Most people didn’t agree with him, and many disagreed with him quite strongly and loudly, but the point is that while those opinions were not actively pandered to, they were tolerated (this is far from the only example), which kind of lets the air out of any attempt to use the site as an analytical tool.
Because those people were, of course, allowed to edit the wiki too. And it is them you can thank for countless little nooks of the site that contain infuriating little asides about how things “aren’t that deep” or whathaveyou. Little asides yours truly occasionally edits out to this very day, but now we’re getting into the deeper problems of the wiki format.
This is without talking about how the site has birthed several unfortunate terms that have made their way into the wider art discussion spheres of the internet. I think if I could revoke any single thing TVTropes was responsible for from the world, it’d be the creation of the term “genre deconstruction”. This would ignore though that TVT is hardly the only website to have ever given rise to stupid neologisms, and if we tallied them up I doubt it’d even rank in the top ten.
However; the most common criticism I see of the Ur-Troper is a pretty odd one from my point of view. If we take a look at Olive’s second tweet we see the idea that tropes are used as “trading cards” to be “misattributed” to whatever you watch or read. This is a…the term “stereotype” feels too strong, but notion about how the average troper is or was that I see floating around the internet a lot. It’s the angle that SomethingAwful chose to attack the site from during their raids on it in the early 2010s, and I do wonder if the idea doesn’t just directly come from there, given how SA has served as a social networking hub for influential writers all throughout the 2010s. (As a sidebar, if you wanted to talk about sites that’ve had a negative impact on the world in general and the arts in particular, Something Awful has its own share of crimes to answer for.)
And to be honest I have no rebuttal here beyond…I simply don’t think it’s true? Not any more than any other public-facing criticism tends to default to using semi-prescriptive terms anyway. Genre names, and the like. The notion of the troper who has an imaginary punch-card in his head and scores media based on how many boxes they tick is one that to me seems to have no real correlation to reality. The best guess I can come up with is that it’s the usual routine of giving flack to hardcore genre fans (who, speaking as one, are sometimes guilty of talking up the aesthetics of our favorite genres without discussing why they mean so much to us in the first place) dressed up in an extra layer of “ew, sweaty geeks”. That feels very uncharitable, admittedly, but I don’t think it’s deliberate on anyone’s part, it’s just hand-me-down nerd caricatures from the 80s. And unfortunately 80s cultural discourse continues to inform our current situation.
My point in writing all of this is not to defend TVTropes (a site that still is somehow limping on years after it has lost what scant relevance it once had), but to point out that these problems are larger than it. It is very easy to point and blame some other group for problems that permeate the entire internet. If TVT were erased from history tomorrow, you would still see many of the same problems it contributes to occurring on places like SomethingAwful, 4chan, reddit, and dozens and dozens of smaller fan communities the world wide web over. These are issues we should be tackling together, not trying to pin the blame on some little corner of the internet no one much cares about anymore.
Not to say that TVT doesn’t have unique problems, but those are mostly beyond the scope of this article being largely administrative (stop googling your old site, Eddie).
Finally, I don’t really blame anyone for getting mad at TVT. The structure is very annoying to read if you’re not used to it, but I don’t think being annoyed at something is the same as having a legitimate, meaningful problem with it, and if all of this guff does anything, I hope it’s to help draw where that line actually is.
So, yeah, a blog post about my old stomping ground. This is not what I imagined I’d be using this platform for (and it makes a fucking hilarious juxtaposition with my last post), but hey, life is as life does.