Category Archives: Archetypes and Genre

Our Flag Means Death and the Treasure Hunt for Queer Genre Fiction

This post contains spoilers for the end of Our Flag Means Death season one.

Traditionally, fiction centring on queer characters has tended to be anchored in contemporary realism, making genre works—sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, historical, etc.— exciting and notable. This is true for basically every field and medium you look to: statistical studies like Malinda Lo’s note that “Historically, LGBTQ YA books have mostly been contemporary realistic novels”, making the slow increase of more genre works for that demographic intriguing. In the world of anime and manga, yuri, BL, and more general LGBTQIA+ focused titles also tend towards realistic settings, making series like Otherside Picnic and The Executioner and Her Way of Life really stand out for their clear positionality in sci-fi and high fantasy respectively.

When we get mainstream queer titles onscreen, they tend to be the Love, Simons and The Miseducation of Cameron Posts of the world. And these, of course, are important advancements! Every queer film that hits cinemas, every queer series that hits streaming services, is part of the evolving history of queer storytelling, and dismissing any one of them because they’re “just the same realist tropes again” isn’t helpful.

But it does mean that when a major network releases a work of queer fantasy, sci-fi, or in this case historical fiction, it stands out as something new and noteworthy. And it opens new, unique possibilities and ways forward that ought to be studied and celebrated alongside the simple fact of a “gay pirate show” existing.

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(Re)Telling an Epic: Biwa and The Heike Story

Late last year as I languished in my feels after bingeing The Heike Story, I joined a centuries old tradition. Across many years, media, and languages Heike Monogatari has drawn audiences into its intricate tragedy, weaving the tale of one noble family’s arrogance and inevitable downfall against the lush and philosophical backdrop of medieval Japan. It’s an epic in the truest sense of the word: sprawling in scope, deeply poetic, and intwined in a glorious tradition of oral storytelling. It may seem like all this should make it nigh-impossible to adapt effectively, but somehow Science SARU pulled it off—not only successfully playing out the tale in eleven episodes, but successfully getting me, and many other very modern viewers, hooked emotionally.

Part of this, of course, is the enduring power of the story itself, but part of it is how the story is told. The Heike Story employs a clever narrative trick to play out the epic while also playing with the epic, adding new and very metatextual dimensions. And that narrative trick’s name is Biwa.

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Genre-Savvy Protagonists in Queer YA Rom-coms

The rules of the romantic comedy are simple and easy to learn, especially when you’re in love with the concept of love… but what if you’re an LGBTQIA+ teenager and this formula has historically cut you out? Well, you have to tweak those rules to make your own.

Presented as a “podcast” for Deakin University’s online Concepts in Popular Genres symposium, 6 – 8 December 2021. A transcript is available here!

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Playing with Genre and Queer Narrative in the Novels of Malinda Lo

I have a new scholarly paper out, published and free to read in the International Journal of Young Adult Literature!

Abstract:

Malinda Lo has been an invaluable voice in the emerging field of queer YA fiction, both for her accessible statistics on the representation of LGBTQIA+ identities in traditional publishing, and for the content of her novels. Her fictional works place sapphic protagonists into genre narratives – sci-fi, fairy tale, thriller – that are traditionally presumed to be the realm of straight heroes. But the queer rebellion in Lo’s writing goes beyond simply casting queer characters into genres and roles that have historically been considered heteronarrative: Lo’s work is an example of what I define here as ‘queer narrative play’, a process of deliberately and visibly troubling, tweaking, and upturning readers’ expectations of the roles and functions of queer characters within recognisable genre frameworks, deftly challenging the historical binary that has existed between ‘mainstream’ genre fiction and ‘marginal’ queer coming-of-age stories.

Following from Tzvetan Todorov’s suggestion that “genres function as ‘horizons of expectation’”, this paper will explore how Lo’s body of work playfully challenges the traditional representation of LGBTQIA+ characters in a variety of methods; from creating speculative worlds that remove the need for narratives such as the coming-out story, to drawing readers’ attention to tragic queer tropes in order to make later subversions of them visible. Queer narrative play is an example of the ways in which contemporary YA writers may enact a rebellious conversation between author and reader, creating playful and progressive new works by reshaping the pre-existing materials of literary expectations, and Lo’s work makes for a stellar example of the craft.

Read and download the full text here!

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Genre and Gender in Wonder Egg Priority

Wonder Egg Priority is perhaps, by now, most famous for how it started out strong and then scrambled itself. The shift from dreamy fantasy to convoluted sci-fi and the show’s unsympathetic treatment of its young female characters, particularly in its finale, are two key factors in the series’ downturn. But these two storytelling issues do not exist separately; they intertwine and inform each other.

Egg’s shift from magic to sci-fi coincides with its shift in character focus. Early episodes center on the four female protagonists. But by the end, its narrative authority lies with its adult male characters, the Accas and Ai’s teacher Mr. Sawaki, who explain the motivations of teenage girls rather than the girls themselves telling their own stories. Intentional or otherwise, it’s worth examining this shift in priorities from magic and the emotional reality of young women to science and the “logic” of grown men. It provides insight into the author’s biases and underlying gender politics, anchored in a study of the series’ genre politics.

Read the full article on Otaku Tribune!

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Be Gay, Do Crime: The Revolutionary History of LGBTQIA+ Young Adult Fiction

Join my colleague Chloe and I for a brief introduction to the world of queer young adult fiction, from its historic beginnings in the 1960s all the way through to the new directions it’s taking now! Originally presented at the Great Writing Conference, 10th – 11th July 2021.

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“Socio-political Ragnarök”: The Trickster figure in queer YA fiction

How might the liminal, mischievous, underdog figure of the Trickster lend itself to stories about queer teens?

Take a peek into one of my thesis chapters in this short video! Originally presented at the Fresh From the Fight: Heroes, Villains and Tricksters in Children’s and Young Adult Literature and Culture conference held virtually at the University of British Columbia, 2nd – 4th July 2021.

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Adventures in the Uncanny with Otherside Picnic

Otherside Picnic is a portal fantasy… in a sense. Though you might be able to call it an isekai by a technicality, it certainly doesn’t have much in common with other “transported to a virtual world” anime among its contemporaries. It might be more accurate to call it a portal horror, because the titular Otherside is so delightfully eerie; constructed entirely of sweeping plains, ruined buildings, and strange inexplicable shapes and “glitches” in the landscape.

It’s scary because of the cryptids and folkloric monsters who roam the grasslands, but the horror is present even before they take centre stage. A sense of bizarre dread is baked into the setting itself. The Otherside is a monster in its own right, and the aesthetic of the world masterfully sets the stage for the psychological horror that is to come.

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Why Do We Love Coming-of-Age Stories So Much?

I read—and watch—a lot of stories about people growing up. Late in 2019, I officially narrowed the focus of my PhD to specifically zero in on YA fiction, which I was reading and analysing an awful lot of anyway. I also write a lot about anime, and I can’t help but notice that the series that really seem to carve out a special place in my heart—and jog my thinking brain—are the ones that deal with coming-of-age stories, or other examinations of the weird pocket of time between “youth” and “adulthood”. And gosh, it’s a weird pocket of time, huh?

As I write lecture material, and find myself going off on tangents enthusiastically explaining the literary and entertainment value of YA to my students, I also find myself wondering… well, how did I get here? Why YA? That’s a tongue-twister, Alex, why’d you even make me read that? But more to the point, why do we—as writers, readers, audiences, and a massive publishing industry—return consistently to the coming-of-age story, to examinations of youth, to high schools and final-summers-before-graduations and that weird transitional space between childhood and adulthood?

Well, I could get all Joseph Campbell on you and suggest something about how stories of “leaving the nest”, experiencing a ritual quest of rites of passage, and coming out the other side a grown human, are embedded in prehistoric tradition and are some of the tales closest to our hearts culturally speaking. And you know I have my beef with Campbell (affectionately so), but I reckon there’s something to his suggestion that this is an archetype fundamental to storytelling as a form, and I reckon there’s also something to his fondness for patterns.

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Queer Allegory and Queer Actuality in Every Heart a Doorway

The portal fantasy subgenre and its themes of displacement, liminality, and “strange” children coming-of-age in even stranger otherworlds, has been read queerly by many readers across its history. From foundational academics like Alexander Doty to contemporary authors like A.J. Hackworth, many have noted the thematic and allegorical undercurrents in the portal fantasy that resonate with, and provide valuable escapism and catharsis to, young queer readers.

Seanan McGuire’s 2016 novella Every Heart a Doorway takes a playful, metatextual approach to the portal fantasy, not only by interrogating its tropes and history but by unambiguously portraying queer characters in the genre. By giving her fantasy narrative to a cast of explicitly queer characters, McGuire acknowledges the queer resonance that has long been present in the genre and brings it to the surface of her work, creating a dual-layer of queerness in the text that interweaves magical metaphor with textual LGBTQIA+ representation. 

Read the full paper (open access, babey!) on Writing From Below!

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