Something in the Water

Fancier Shoes

Imagine there’s this shoe factory on a river bank, and the shoes it makes are a work of art:  supple leather, long-lasting, comfortable like you wouldn’t believe. Plus, they’re just-straight up, jaw-droppingly beautiful.  People write fan letters to the designer of these shoes.  They have conventions about these shoes where they cosplay as these shoes, all the while wearing these shoes.

The people that work at the factory have no complaints either: the pay’s good, the benefits are great and best of all there’s this genuinely lovely work culture that means everyone really enjoys their time together. They’re proud to be involved.

At its stated purpose of making kick-ass footwear, this factory is a roaring success. Such a roaring success in fact, that other companies are copying its process wholesale, setting up near identical factories all along the river.

There’s only one snag: as part of the tanning process for the leather, the factory uses a bunch of chemicals and then dumps them into the river. Most of these compounds are benign, but there’s one that can be toxic. It affects people’s brains and in high enough concentrations, it can make them hallucinate that they’re in Star Wars.

So you go to the factory owner with a sample of the river water, and say ‘Hey, you make great shoes, but I’m a bit worried that this stuff you’re putting into the river is getting to dangerous levels.’

And the factory owner says ‘But we make great shoes.’

And you say, ‘I know you make great shoes, I just said you make great shoes, but the chemicals you’re putting in our drinking water made my brother crash his car into the side of a 7-Eleven last week because he thought it was a Super Star Destroyer and his Ford Fiesta was an X-Wing.’

And Factory owner says, ‘How do you know it was us? The chemical you’re talking about, if it’s dangerous at all, is only dangerous in high concentrations, and we only use a teeny tiny bit.’

You: ‘But a load of other shoe makers are using it too.’

Factory Owner: ‘I only think about my factory, my workers and my customers. And they all love me.’

You: ‘But this chemical, you don’t even need it. There’s a bunch of factories in the next town over making shoes just as handsome and durable and comfy, and their tanning process is completely benign. It’s not even more expensive!’

Factory owner: ‘Good for them. I like our way. Say, those shoes look really good on you. Would you like a pair in brown? ‘


The shoes are our stories, their comfort, durability and looks are the depth of characterization, dexterity of plotting and the beauty of the prose. The water table is our culture, our shared public consciousness.

And the chemicals? They’re tropes.

Plenty of tropes, like plenty of chemicals, are both useful and harmless. Some however – like always having the women in your story be helpless or passive or always casting the black guy as the drug dealer – are… not so harmless.

Using these tropes doesn’t necessarily make the story less gripping, suspenseful or moving. Employed skilfully enough, they can even enhance those qualities – watching a hero rescue a damsel in distress is exciting, that’s how it became a trope – but that doesn’t change the fact that, like the chemical, when they leak out into the environment, they’re going to have an effect.

That effect may of a single story may be very small, like the contribution from any one factory is small, but when hundreds of thousands of them are pumping this stuff into the atmosphere, it adds up.

And I don’t think it’s crazy to believe that the fact that we have these kinds of tropes floating around in our narrative water table is not merely indicative of, but contributes to^ a culture where unarmed black kids can get shot because ‘they look threatening’ and women earn seventy-seven pence for every pound that men earn**.

Using these tropes doesn’t necessarily make for a bad book, any more than tight plotting necessarily makes for good one. Books are complicated, and what makes one good or bad will depend on the reader, which is why we shouldn’t let an unresolvable argument over whether X is a good or bad book obscure the fact that it contains these tropes, and that they have an effect.

A couple of hundred years ago, there were near enough no such things as environmental regulations. We thought factories were there to make goods and make money, and that was it. Slowly we came round to the idea that the people that made things bore some responsibility for in the incidental, as well as the deliberate products of that creation, and that the air we breathed and the water we drank needed a bit of looking after. We made an effort to find cleaner, greener ways to make the same stuff, and a lot of the time we found them.

This is where the analogy breaks down* of course, as all analogies eventually do. We definitely don’t need legislation to protect our public consciousness from damaging story tropes – that way lies crazypantsville – but is it really asking so much to take a little more care with the chemicals we’re pumping into the cultural water?

Because if we don’t, we’ll all wind up swinging kitchen-knives while making lightsaber noises and chopping family member’s hands off, and that’s no way to live.



* (The other place the analogy breaks down is that the use of these tropes isn’t incidental to the reading experience the way the production process for the shoes is to the wearing experience. Their inclusion can make these texts actively hostile to the people who are poorly represented. Anne Leckie has a great analogy for this here

**Originally this said ‘that men earn for the same job, but then I traced the source to this report. Indebted to M. Amelia Kafjord for the correction.

^There’s evidence for this here., and some discussion of the mechanism by which it happens. 

8 thoughts on “Something in the Water

  1. Having spent all day (well, a lot of the day) yesterday tweeting about how #weneeddiversebooks, this is the flip side – diversity cannot be tokenism or people represented in stereotyped and negative tropes. Everyone needs space, because in real life, everyone is the main character of their story. To deny that is plain ridiculous.
    Just because someone used to be in TV in a comedy group then presenting a nature show, doesn’t mean they’re right that it’s ‘soft porny’ to show two women kissing on Doctor Who. Times have changed and old white men need to move with the times too.


  2. I’m wavering about villains. I went through a long phase, driven by when I grew up, of being pissed off by books and films where the LGBT person ended up unhappy and alone. Or was the bad entity. The ‘fag villain’ is such a stereotype. and yet I have written a very nasty and I think, rather effective story, which relied on the villain and the victim being a same sex relationship.
    I suppose across my output I write tons of positive or realistic people but I still had a wobble. I’ve come to the view that we have to talk about things in all their richness, which means being brave enough to write the villains too.


    1. ‘I’ve come to the view that we have to talk about things in all their richness, which means being brave enough to write the villains too.’

      Well sure, but we don’t achieve ‘richness’ just by showing that characters from historically maligned groups can be both heroes and villains – we gotta go deeper and break down the common subtropes of villainous characters too. For example, female villains are really cool and I think it’s important to acknowledge that women can be evil because realism. However, female villains are often portrayed as overtly sexual, which forms a rather nasty link between female sexuality and inappropriate behaviour; reinforcing anti-feminist cultural standards which are harmful to real life women. And because this is the road so many pieces of media take when creating female villains, the inclusion of a female villain doesn’t necessarily create a richer, more complex picture of the world – instead it can just reinforce old, boring simplifications.


  3. … I almost wondered whether that Dr Who kiss was kind of a weird, knowing retro-kitsch nod to identity politics of an earlier era: like Kirk & Uhura being forced to kiss because of space magic, or Gabrielle & Xena’s softly lip-lingering liquid transfer moment … it was almost like the kiss was jokingly being smuggled past some hegemonic homophobic constituency which doesn’t exist in quite the same way any more, a shocking-not-shocking moment with redundant get-out clauses like BUT IT IS FINE WHEN SHE IS A LIZARD? Or perhaps, not a knowing joke, but a knee-jerk nostalgia for a time when that’s all it took to be brave and progressive? Don’t know, maybe a bit OT


  4. This is a brilliant analogy. I need at least eight analogies or metaphors a day anyway but this one is particularly satisfying. Also, primed by a Nine Worlds panel comment about the tropes in gaming – very, very toxic tropes to keep on your analogy, which I can feel taking over my cerebral cortex as I key this comment in. To fight the Power of Your Analogy and remind me I can do them to, the other way of cleaning up a river is to pour in the good tropes to dilute the bad tropes. Which you’re doing already, yay!


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