Are bad tropes always bad? Good or bad, tropes exist. Media has always gone hand in hand with them. Generally, they are seen as crutches—a device creators rely on when the story is in need of support. But any work of media is going to draw on the works that came before it, intentionally or not. Nothing is made in a vacuum.
Tropes being used to support a work doesn’t have to be bad. In fact, when used cleverly, tropes can and have been subversive. They can support the themes and plot. Good tropes draw on the best elements of the works that came before to enhance the story being told. Every good trope doesn’t have to be ground-breaking. Most of the time they just persist, not needing pushing boundaries, nor causing a huge fault in the story by its inclusion.
But, for every positive aspect, there can be a negative. The worst kind of tropes are the ones steeped in negative stereotypes and sustain harmful perceptions. Where every drug dealer on the screen is black or Latino. When you can bet your last dollar the token minority will be the first one killed in a horror/suspense film. When the happy ending for the lesbians is when they break up and go their separate ways. And yes, that has to be seen as a happy ending when the examples of the alternate scenario make up far too long of a list.
When it comes to the representation of marginalized characters, the history of media is rife with negative stereotypes and tropes. Villainous representations of LGBT+ and characters of colour have led to the ‘Insane Lesbian Ex’ and ‘Angry Black Man’ tropes. The ‘Bury your Gays’ and ‘Black Guy dies first’ tropes have hundreds of examples.
Though, in recent years, things have gotten better. Social media has given the audience the tools to call out creators directly when their tropes spill from harmlessly cliché to dangerously reductive. More creators from minority groups are stepping into writers rooms and directors chairs, pushing for representation that does away with negative stereotypes. Diversity in front of and behind the cameras is becoming more prominent. The media landscape has been changing into one that doesn’t allow the quiet existence of works that blindly encourage the persistence of these tropes.
It’s in this landscape that Carmilla not only exists, but thrives as a paradigm of excellent representation.
Carmilla, fondly known as “the little web series that could”, is a fun and campy dramedy brimming with supernatural elements and a romance for the ages at its core. It’s a series that challenged what LGBT+ storylines in media could look like. From its first season shot in one room, barely big enough to fit the cast to a feature-length movie, it has defied expectation, constantly supported by its driven fandom. Look no further than the Carmilla movie, which was in part funded by the fans, for evidence of the passion they carry for the series. It may not have always been perfect, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who said Carmilla’s fault stems from negative tropes.
Yet, the series could be accused of including just that. Several of the antagonists are LGBT+ characters and characters of colour. The deaths in the series include queer ladies and a woman of colour. How did Carmilla get away with acts that would have crucified another series?
The answer seems simple enough: most characters on Carmilla don’t stay dead for very long. Carmilla, our title character seems to die in a blaze of self-sacrificial glory during the climax of season one. But thanks to her vampire constitution and some blood in a milk container, she’s revived just in time to share a kiss with Laura. Danny Lawrence, the strong willed protector and Matska ‘Mattie’ Belmonde, Carmilla’s dangerously charming older sister, a queer woman and woman of colour respectively, both meet violent ends during season two. They are each given a second (or third in Mattie’s case) lease at life when revived by greater supernatural begins at play. In season three Laura Hollis, the protagonist of the series has her heart ripped out, literally. But Carmilla challenges a death goddess for her life, again, in the literal sense. And so, she and Laura get their truly happy ending.
A similar case could be made for the antagonists of the series, where they are given the opportunities for redemption. Danny and Mattie stand on either side of the conflict throughout the series, but by the end, they have both acknowledged their parts in it and in their own ways made amends.
Danny starts off as the white knight of the series, willing to do anything to protect the school and those she cares about. It’s the thing that costs her, her life. When she’s brought back to life by the main antagonist of the series, the Dean (who’s also the goddess Inanna), she feels as though her sacrifice was useless. It’s what drives her to turn against everything she’d been fighting for.
Mattie is a force of nature whenever she’s on screen, regardless of whose side she’s playing on. Even when Mattie was an antagonistic force, she was working to mitigate as much chaos as possible when it was Laura and Carmilla’s actions that incited the turmoil in the first place. She tackled it as clinically as possible, even if her ways resulted in some collateral. Her lack of regard for the views and property of the students of Silas University was where her conflict with Laura and the rest of the characters stemmed from. In a reverse of what happens to Danny, Mattie’s death releases her from her obligations to the Dean. She returns by the grace of another goddess, Ereshkigal, to act as her messenger. And though now her own motives align with the heroes’ her method doesn’t change.
But Carmilla’s approach to representation goes beyond redeeming its villains. It’s no mistake the one antagonistic character the series portrays as truly villainous is the old privileged white man who feels like he’d been wronged by a woman. The Baron Vordenberg presents himself as a victim of the Dean and her forces. He vows if he gets the power to do so, he’ll rid Silas University of the remainder of the Dean’s allies. But when he does achieve it, he goes after not only the vampires loyal to the Dean but every supernatural being on campus.
The Dean, and to a lesser extent Theo Straka, are the characters whose actions are closest in comparison to his. But in each of their cases, their violent actions are a means to an end. The Dean sacrificed hundreds for her plans, even those close to her. In order to bring back her loved one, she was willing to do anything necessary. In the same vein, Theo’s actions were made out of self-preservation and a grab for power. Their actions weren’t presented in a sympathetic light, but they were presented fairly. It wasn’t their goals that made them villains, but the ruthless means they were willing to use to achieve them.
The same is true of Elle Sheridan, the antagonist of the Carmilla movie. As Carmilla’s ex, it would have been all too easy for her to become the psycho lesbian ex-girlfriend. But her actions aren’t driven by revenge against Carmilla and Laura. She’d died partly because of Carmilla and what she wants is the life that she was denied. Like the Dean and like Theo she’s willing to go to any extremes to do that, even if means killing. Or rather, in her case, sending the souls of several ghosts to a tormenting purgatory.
This is what makes the makes the difference in Carmilla’s approach to representation. The characters are treated as people. It’s why each death has a gravitas behind it, even after they’re brought back to life. Their deaths weren’t a motivator to spur the other characters into action, but a result of each character choosing for themselves to risk everything protecting something or someone they believed in.
This is the bottom line when someone says representation matters. It goes beyond just having diverse characters. It’s about those characters being able to experience and express a spectrum of emotions. To be allowed to be flawed. To exist as a person and not a tick in the box for the sake of representation. Mattie and Theo weren’t the only characters of colour in the series. Carmilla, Danny and Laura weren’t the LGBT+ characters.
They are allowed make the wrong decisions before making the right one, or to make the selfish decision. They are allowed to die for the right reasons. To deny the characters the chance to be flawed, would be a failure of the storytelling. But at the same time being unable to understand why the audience is so desperate to see themselves would be a failure of the storytellers.
The creative team behind Carmilla is as diverse as the characters they put to screen. They understand why their audience is tired of seeing themselves as the villains. And why they’re tired of seeing themselves die. They are part of that audience. An audience that has been denied the happy ending time and time again.
One of the things that makes the romance between Laura and Carmilla so potent is the fact it’s at the core of the story when it doesn’t have to be. If Carmilla and Laura were straight, the plot would still exist. There’d still be an evil cabal of vampires running a university rampant with supernatural ongoings. Laura and Carmilla are lesbians because they are, not because they’re the main characters in a lesbian love story. The same is true for every other character in the series. No character here could be called the token, (unless you’re counting Kirsch as the token straight guy with a heart of gold).
Maybe, in another world, Laura could have stayed dead. In a world where the Lexa’s death didn’t start a revolution because there wasn’t a need for one. In a world where a majority of LGBT+ characters weren’t defined by their coming out or their romances. In a world where I didn’t flinch every time there was a gun aimed at a queer woman. In that world, Laura’s death could have been more impactful than the happy ending where she and Carmilla walked off hand in hand with the upbeat song playing as the credits start to roll.
This isn’t that world. Not yet. But with Carmilla, and more series like it striving to have representation done right one day, it could be.