Tropes are recurring storytelling devices used by creators all over the world to construct situations that the audience will immediately recognize. They make use of common cultural ideas and conventions and can be a powerful tool when used correctly.
Tropes have certainly gotten a bad rep for being overused plot devices or simple variations on common themes. However, as urbandictionary points out: Not all tropes are bad, until Hollywood gets stuck on one.
On the contrary, tropes are older than the written language itself, and there is a reason for it. No, it isn’t that creators thrive on repetition, or that every good story has already been told and therefore only adaptation and alteration are left. Tropes are created and destroyed every day, and they exist because it is pretty much impossible to tell a story without using them.
The fun is to use them and bend them, to take the audience by the hand with the shared notion of recognizable situations and characteristics and then offer something unexpected. Or maybe not, maybe to tell a story so charming, so exciting, so well-crafted, that tropes are the last thing on the audience’s mind.
And look, let’s be honest, we are all going to watch the next Snow White adaptation that someone comes up with, and I dare you to deny it.
In the world of queer women (and the LGBT community as a whole) tropes are, of course, unavoidable. Some are good, some are bad, many are overused, and many others are only now starting to surface. In fact, for a very long time, queer women have lived their literary and cinematic lives buried in subtext, which is a perfect brewing pot for genre tropes. After all, there is no better way to identify what is being written between the lines than the use of conventions.
Here is the list of most common tropes for queer women:
The Accidental Lesbian – She swears she was drunk. Or that everyone experiments in college. Nothing wrong with a little sexperimentation.
The Ambiguously Queer Character – A female character that will usually share many of The Butch Lesbian’s characteristics, but whose sexuality will never be openly discussed. A trope used in literature in the past, and still sometimes on TV and movies and that is slowly disappearing, as the modern media is no longer as censored in depicting diverse sexuality as it used to be.
The Butch Lesbian – Sporty, conventionally un-feminine, a fan of plaid, jeans, and boots, The Butch Lesbian will often have a typically masculine job and a Lipstick Lesbian for a partner. While not necessarily a bad trope, the Butch/Lipstick Lesbian Couple has often been accused of enforcing male/female dynamics on a queer relationship.
The Depraved Bisexual – The crazies that are bisexual because, why not? There are no limits to their manipulative personality, and seduction is only one more weapon in their arsenal. Have you ever read the Marquis De Sade? Yes, those are the lunatics.
The Discount Lesbian – Speculative fiction has always been the easiest genre in which to approach LGBT material. And why not? It’s is the genre made for monsters and otherness. Thus, the aliens/beings/non-human entities that definitely look like women but aren’t actual women are born. And if they happen to make out, well, it’s not totally gay.
The If It’s You, It’s Okay Phenomenon – Look, she’s straight. Most definitely. But then there’s that one woman that just transcends sexual preference or that one woman that even inanimate objects are attracted to. Sometimes, though, the exception becomes the rule.
The Lesbian Cop – Because no one has heard that joke before, right? Check out Laurie R. King’s Kate Martinelli series for the good stuff.
The Lesbian Jock – Loves sports, and also the ladies. Because women sports are really, really gay.
The Lesbian Vampire – Perhaps the oldest one in the books, this lady will seduce, hypnotize and possibly kill unsuspecting innocent human females. Her earliest representation is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872). Accepted early on by virtue of their monster condition and their mystical abilities for glamoring and stealing women’s wills away, the lesbian or bisexual vampire is even now the default setting for most female vampires.
The Lipstick Lesbian – She’s conventionally feminine, and sometimes, even more so than straight women. She likes all the girly stuff, too. And all the girly bits. A contrasting counterpart to The Butch Lesbian.
The Magical Queer Woman – Who has all the wisdom in the world and will play the part of the advisor, generally in gay male fiction (for heterosexual fiction, The Magical Queer will usually be a gay man). Not unlike the Magical Negro trope, it can usually take a turn for the offensively patronizing. Tread with caution.
The Man-Hating Lesbian – Also known as the feminazi or the straw feminist. Usually played for laughs or contrast.
The Psycho Lesbian – A trope often used in the past to make lesbians into unstable, jealous and violent individuals, and to give the narrative a proper excuse to kill them. Go straight or go crazy was the motto, an instant go-to-jail card into villainy. This trope goes as back as Diderot’s The Nun (1796).
The Romantic Two-Girl Friendship – The bosom buddies, the gal pals, the no-but-really-they-are-just-friends. And they are just friends, or at the very least only very subtextual lesbians. Very common in western literature until the late 1800s.
The Schoolgirl Lesbian – Two young girls in high school uniforms who seem so close that – oh, oh, are they dating? Fiction land is filled with these, possibly because this trope is also a common male fantasy (and yes, guys being into girl-on-girl action is, indeed, another trope). Often used in plots that involve all-girls schools, with themes of budding sexual awakening and societal norms. Often times, The Schoolgirl Lesbian will grow out of her attraction to women.
The Situational Lesbian – An all-girls private school, or prison, or a planet with an all-female race, or a pirate ship with an only-female crew. The other choice is repressing all sexuality, so…
The Sudden Lesbian – When a character is suddenly shown to change sexuality without any previous notion of their apparent attraction to the same gender. Misused, it can easily become fanservice. If it is well-done, however, it can challenge the subconscious notion of the audience that any character is automatically straight unless stated otherwise.
The Two Mommies – Usually walking the line between best friends and lovers, these two ladies will choose to raise a kid together via adoption, donor, spell-casting, you name it. Defying the concept of the traditional family, they create their own beautiful and special family unit.
The Token Lesbian – The lesbian that is there so that not all the characters are gay men. Because see? The work is all-inclusive now!
The Unknown Bisexual – By the way, it just so happens I’m attracted to more than one gender. Just saying. Why, aren’t you? Outing bisexual characters is always hard in fiction, and something that media still struggles with, but keeping it cool and not making a fuss is a good trick.
Did I miss something? Sound off in the comments!
And stay tuned for feature articles on each trope, its origins, and book recommendations for your reading pleasure.