What We Mean by Deconstruction – Tropes and How They’re Played With

Deconstruction is a word that I, and I think many others, bandy around a lot as an assumed self-explanatory recommendation. I think the word carries a lot of baggage though, and it’s a term that is widely misconstrued, so I’d like to take a finer look at the term.

Now I’m not an Etymologist, nor am I a literary critic. I am in no way attempting to assign a definitive meaning to the word, or chronicle its usage or the like. I merely intend to discuss a loose definition, the popular use of the word, the connotations we attach to it and the role it plays in Anime. What is it? How do shows use it? What is its significance? Is it a positive thing? What role can it play? etc etc.

I’m going to start by quoting Tv Tropes on the subject. Partially because I think they have a tendency to be both apt and accessible, but mostly because I’m incredibly unimaginative.

“Deconstruction literally means “to take something apart.” As one might expect, this is a very broad term, with a number of different definitions in literary criticism, theoretical physics, and even plain-old demolitions.

When applied to tropes, or other aspects of fiction, deconstruction means to take apart a trope so as to better understand its meaning and relevance to us in Real Life. This often means pursuing a trope’s inherent contradictions and the difference between how the trope appears in this one work and how it compares to other relevant tropes or ideas both in fiction and Real Life.

The simplest and most common method of applying Deconstruction to tropes in fiction among general audiences and fan bases, and the method most relevant to TV Tropes, takes the form of questioning “How would this trope play out with Real Life consequences applied to it?“”

I think this is spot on. So much so that I will leave the definition of the word at that. That is a relatively small excerpt from the page, and I would recommend reading the rest for more qualifications on the term, what it is and isn’t etc. With definition out of the way, let’s talk connotations.

I will admit this openly, I use the term deconstruction synonymously to good, and I don’t think I’m the only one, but what really are the implications?

Let’s briefly examine the origins of the word. Deconstruction, as a from of critical analysis in philosophy, was coined by Jacques Derrida in 1967, to break down and examine various philosophical binary oppositions used in the construction of meaning and values, and was later applied to literature. It  was inspired by Heidegger’s concept of Destruktion. Nietzsche’s concept of demolition was similarly a forerunner to the concept, and his whole style of ethical and philosophical questioning is highly reminiscent. Derrida chose the word deconstruction; however, because he saw it as a less violent and caustic act than destruction or demolition. The goal is to take apart the pieces, and examine the mechanisms, before putting it back together. Deconstruction is not about destroying things outright, it is not a nihilistic concept, and this is a key attribute. To be effective, deconstruction must put the pieces back together in a new way, or create new concepts, to replace those it does destroy. After all, tropes aren’t bad.

It reminds me a little of parody. Good parody needs to give its own content in place of what it ridicules. Anything that is purely destructive is problematic. As always, Yahtzee puts is well.

Let’s look at an example. The recent Madoka is often cited as a deconstruction of the magical girl genre. It takes a lot of the common tropes associated with the genre and puts a more realistic twist on them. Fighting is actually life threatening, the whole system is there for darker, more cynical reasons, and things aren’t fair or just.

The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi is often considered a deconstruction of harem, high school, slice-of-life shows. It makes for an interesting contrast to Madoka, because if handles deconstruction pretty differently. While Madoka focuses on bringing some harsh reality to the genre, Haruhi tends more to pursue the inherent contradictions, and highlight the ludicrousness of common genre tropes. On a fairly basic level, it often makes meta jokes, such as Haruhi originally recruiting Mikuru because fiction had convinced her that a moe character was necessary for the mystery genre. It likes to take common genre tropes to the extreme, like using the common baseball game trope, and making it literally of world threatening significance, which is kind of an ironic twist on what is usually used as filler. On a slightly deeper level, it plays around with the ordinary high school student trope quite a bit. Not only is Kyon nothing but ordinary, when you consider his position, deep down he is desperate not to be ordinary, he’s just spent most of his life resigned to this position. Haruhi may be pretty moe in her own way, but she subverts the usual passive female characters of the harem genre. Also, her position as God is, to me, at least, an amusing jab at the paper-thin harem illusion that the male protagonist is the most important character. As viewer-insert fantasies, harems are often sold much more on the female characters, despite them being theoretically secondary to the male lead, in a narrative sense. Haruhi couldn’t be more important, and openly so, she is God, essentially, even if Kyon does hold some power in his sway over her.

To me, the key point is really the “to better understand its meaning and relevance to us in Real Life. This often means pursuing a trope’s inherent contradictions” part of the tvtropes definition, and this is why I see deconstruction as an overwhelmingly positive force. I’d almost always watch a show that deconstructs a genre over one that plays it straight, because tropes stagnate, and genres get into bad habits that lose their original purpose with dull repetition. With deconstruction I am at least more likely to encounter realism and originality. What’s more, there’s a lot of power in taking a genre apart and really questioning the way it functions. There’s the potential there for it to be a revolutionary shake-down if people really pay attention. It’s a form of entertainment analysis that works without leaving the basic fiction construct. What’s more, when done right, it adds to the genre it pulls apart. Madoka and Haruhi are great because they don’t just rely on the meta elements for entertainment, they give their own powerful content. A strong cast of characters, witty, poignant, or insightful dialogue, and a world we come to care about. I could never really get into Lucky Star, because the whole series seems more about the meta jokes and references than anything else. Which is fine, I guess, but you’re going to need to do better than that if you’re going to make humour your main selling point.

To use another example, we all have to suspend disbelief to varying degrees with any kind of fiction, but particularly with anime, I feel. We’re used to seeing characters going super deformed, and slapstick being grossly exaggerated is pretty much taken as read. We’re, at least subconsciously, aware that what we see is not necessarily an exact representation of what is actually happening. Playing on this, Mawaru Penguindrum (I will write up a whole post devoted to this series at a later date) goes so far as to deconstruct anime as a medium, telling what is, for the most part, a metaphorical tale. The symbolism and themes are greater guides to the progression of the narrative than the strict physical events. To quote a particularly good review I read, ” If it wanted, anime could go back to business as usual after this, but it would be a great injustice if it did so.” Penguindrum really is revolutionary, it pushes the boundaries of the medium, and it does so by playing with such a basic reality of anime viewership. I can’t think of a better example of the power of deconstruction as a method of constructive analysis.

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6 Responses to What We Mean by Deconstruction – Tropes and How They’re Played With

  1. r042 says:

    Watching Madoka I’m not sure it fits as a deconstruction even in the sense you claim – the drama and consequences aren’t born from realism but instead crossing genres (Kyubey, the driving force behind the revelations, is an orchestrating figure controlling the characters and the viewer gradually realises how fixed it all is – a sort of Bioshock situation).

    It’s a challenge to expectations but not per se a deconstruction.

    • alsozara says:

      Thanks for the comment. That’s an interesting point. Life is a little hectic at the moment, but I will give you a proper response next chance I get.

      Awesome post on Madoka over on your blog by the way. I might throw in my own two cents there as well when I get a little time.

      • r042 says:

        Thanks! It’s good to watch much discussed things long after the buzz dies down, you can think about them in peace!

      • alsozara says:

        Alright, sorry for how long this took. I think I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t quite agree.

        To me, and please pick apart this definition if you disagree at any point, a big part of deconstruction is taking commonly used tropes and breaking them down to show the absurdity inherent in their usual use. For example, the fact that there’s actually a logistic reason that the ones picked to fight witches are angsty pubescent girls. In how many series does this basic fact go unquestioned? By drawing attention to it, it highlights the absurdity of the trope, and forces us to consider it’s real implications. There are other examples I could give, but they would mostly be in the same vein. If that isn’t deconstruction then I clearly don’t understand the term myself.

  2. r042 says:

    I can see where you’re coming from about the nature of deconstruction and Madoka certainly has elements of it. I just didn’t think it could really be called one given it ended with the establishing of the genre status quo (almost risk-free fights against non-witch enemies created for Kyubey’s sustenance).

    As I understand it the status quo come the ending of Madoka is also in part the premise of Might Gaine (in that in the latter, if I understand correctly, the fights are all staged for the entertainment of the villain’s people).

    • alsozara says:

      Can’t comment on Might Gaine, haven’t seen it.

      That’s an interesting point about the ending re-establishing the status quo, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree that the ending does that. However, to refer to a point I made in the post itself, I don’t believe that deconstruction is an inherently destructive act. I think it can leave the genre intact and still be deconstruction.

      The ending may return us to the status quo, but that doesn’t undo the ways it has previously questioned the genre, just like putting a piece of machinery back together in much the same form doesn’t change the fact that you took it apart first. The understanding of the constituent elements and how they function together as a whole is still there, and, again, as I mentioned in the blog post, to my understanding deconstruction arose as a form of critical analysis, not necessarily as a method to destroy a concept or genre.

      It’s a somewhat semantic disagreement we’re having, I think. We could probably agree that Madoka certainly has deconstructive elements, but is not in sum total a deconstruction. Not that I’m trying to defuse debate, I’m enjoying this enormously.

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