Today we welcome guest author, Maigray, who brings us a fascinating analysis of Lost Girl as viewed through the lens of genre television. Thank you, Maigray!
Although Lost Girl has made a name for itself because of its sexcapades, there is little talk of how Lost Girl functions as a genre show.
So…What is a genre show?
Although all shows fall into a genre, to refer to a show as a “genre show” is usually shorthand for a show with a science fiction or fantasy focus. But there is no official definition of a genre show. In fact, the lack of definition is one of the defining concepts of genre. There is a famous quote from Damon Knight, regarding the debate on how to define science fiction, which sums up the matter nicely:
“That the term “science fiction” is a misnomer, that trying to get two enthusiasts to agree on a definition of it leads only to bloody knuckles; that better labels have been devised (Heinlein’s suggestion, “speculative fiction,” is the best, I think), but that we’re stuck with this one; and that it will do us no particular harm if we remember that, like “The Saturday Evening Post,” it means what we point to when we say it.”
Heinlein won out. Nowadays, genre shows are generally lumped under the term speculative fiction, which is considered an “umbrella term” or a “super trope.” Any show with imaginative, speculative, or unrealistic elements; failing that, any show that cannot fit in anywhere else. By their very nature, genre shows must either exist within another genre (e.g. crime); work within the framework of an established genre universe (e.g. Star Trek); or mix and match genre characteristics to create something new.
Lost Girl is a good example of a show that creates something new. A Google search will pull it up under fantasy, drama, and supernatural drama keywords. IMDb classifies it under the crime/drama/horror genres. Wikipedia says it is a supernatural crime drama. TV Muse assigns it to both crime and fantasy genres. It is not a stretch to call it a contemporary urban action fantasy, which has incorporated elements of crime, mystery, heroic fantasy, low fantasy, historical fantasy, paranormal romance, gothic punk, steampunk, horror, science fantasy, mundane fantasy, supernatural soap opera, feminism and LGBT themes.
Five bucks says you can find some other categories for it over at tvtropes.org.
The Unwritten Rules of Genre: Where Does Lost Girl Fit Into The Tradition?
To understand how Lost Girl fits within the hierarchy of genre shows, and how the show uses their tropes and traditions, it is necessary to understand what backs them. Although they have enjoyed surging popularity for the last two decades, spurred on by shows which have broken into the mainstream consciousness, like The X-Files, genre shows are traditionally niche viewing. In the heyday of Star Trek and Buck Rogers, they were considered cheesy, low-budget flicks, aimed at a juvenile male audience that devolved into cult status for the geeks and freaks crowd. Lost Girl sticks to its roots in more ways than one; being a relatively low level production with a small, dedicated fanbase is one of them. But it also utilizes vintage plot rules laid down by its antecedents.
The first thing you sit down with a genre show and expect to find is world building. These are things most shows on television do not have to even think about, let alone figure out how to write them, and translate them on screen, while still introducing characters and context. The process requires a great amount of work and imagination, and can be chaotic and overwhelming. But genre fans eat up the details of each new universe like addicts looking for their next fix. Lost Girl spends a good amount of time simply introducing its audience to the world it inhabits, such as the political processes (e.g episode 202); the magical rules (e.g. episode 108: and their limits (e.g. episode 411).
Lauren: You don’t understand the politics of this world. It could be dangerous for me to even talk to you.
Of course, no show can adequately world build without spending extensive time on it; nor can they build an entire alternate reality in adequate form in approximately 43 minutes. This eats into time that could be devoted to character, plot or action. All genre shows require a suspension of disbelief to work; you need your viewers to work with you, and only they can decide how far down the rabbit hole they will follow. To some extent, viewers have to be willing to fill in the gaps themselves, create some of their own details, or just skip past the specifics in some instances, and let the show roll forward at its own pace. Genre shows often have rough first seasons. This is often the source of the “thinky” qualities of genre shows that fans adore. But they have also bolstered themselves with various time-honored plot tropes, specific and singular to genre shows themselves. Lost Girl has employed a number of these devices, planting its leather-clad boots firmly in “classic” genre territory.
Although popularized by the 1993 Bill Murray film, which episode 408, “Groundhog Fae,” pays explicit homage to, the time loop was a genre device before the movie used it. Any show that employs a time loop is following in the footsteps of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show which did it before the movie. The X-Files, and Stargate followed suit, as did Farscape, Buffy, Supernatural, Eureka, Charmed, Doctor Who, Xena: Warrior Princess, etc. The list goes on and on.
The body-swapping trope is another classic story device. It is so extensively used in film, it has its own category. By definition, any show that does use it, is a genre show; and almost all genre shows will use it, at one point or another. Just a small sample will give some scope: The X-Files (twice!), Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: Voyager, Farscape, Charmed (three times!), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (twice!), Xena: Warrior Princess, etc. Current Lost Girl show runner Emily Andras gleefully recounted how she scripted the body-swapping episode, “Original Skin,” while on drugs after birth. I highly recommend this approach. Whether it was a deliberate call back or not, many genre fans will notice the uncanny similarity between the scenes in Farscape and Lost Girl, when male characters were swapped into female characters’ bodies.
Closely related to body swapping are all sorts of other genre tropes, such as; twinning, creating an evil twin, cloning, possession, etc. They are vintage genre devices, used with what are generally hilarious or creepy results straight down the line of genre show history. Evil twins were famously employed by the original Star Trek in their “Mirror, Mirror” episode. From then on, it became a running trope within genre series. There was an entire story arc for Kenzi in Lost Girl which revolved around her evil twin, beginning in episode 221 and culminating in episode 307. The show also played with twinning in episode 213, when Bo confronted a shapeshifter who became her doppelgänger. The trope were employed several different times in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and at least twice in Farscape. Xena: Warrior Princess created an entire running storyline gag over multiple episodes, using their lead actress to play three distinct characters who were physical twins. Smallville used it at least once, as did Legend of the Seeker, when major characters were split into halves of themselves.
Possession was used for the Lost Girl plot arc involving Nadia, from episode 216 through episode 219. The show also fussed with a variant of it in episode 303, when Tamsin, Bo and Dyson all have their personalities altered when they are infected by a parasite. The same device was used in Star Trek: The Next Generation in their 25th episode, and by Farscape for a two parter in their second season. The possession-by-aliens trope was used by Farscape in its third season as well. Supernatural used variations on both tropes so many times, you can find whole lists of episodes where the lead characters switched bodies, were possessed, etc. Battlestar Galactica may have combined twinning, downloading and possession devices to their natural apex when it created the ability to download consciousness into identical bodies when a Cylon died.
Notwithstanding its possession-by-parasites trope, “Confaegion,” continues what is, essentially, a nearly five decade tribute to the original Star Trek series episode, “The Naked Time.” This episode was remade in homage by Star Trek: The Next Generation in episode 102, “The Naked Now.” The trope is the loss of inhibition, akin to being drugged or drunk, resulting in a somewhat darkly comic episode, ultimately leading to a narrow averting of death and disaster. “Confaegion” hits all points to a tee.
Buffy: The Vampire Slayer may have singlehandedly put the evil fraternity/sorority trope into the genre mainstream with its episode, “Reptile Boy.” Since then, several genre shows have exploited it, including Supernatural, and Smallville, which did a flat out parody. Lost Girl skated right down the middle of it with its 103 episode, which subverted the original trope by making the sorority blameless.
The old fantasy standby of the love spell has been incorporated into the very structure of Lost Girl’s heroine, who can make anyone “love” her. The love spell is usually related to character intoxication; hence the juvenile sexual shenanigans seen in “Confaegion” and in other uses of the trope. Star Trek: The Next Generation produced a controversial sex scene between an android and a human crew mate in “The Naked Now.” Still, Lost Girl managed to play with the concept in various other ways, notably in the episode “Faented Love.” The trope is hilariously subverted by making the man, Ryan, be the one under the love spell of the heroine; then inverted again by letting the heroine become an unwitting pawn to the desire of the man she infected. There are not many shows that can roll with those kinds of gender parodies. Not unless they are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who did something similar in their episode, “Halloween.”
Rules Are Made To Be Broken in Genre Television: How Lost Girl Does It
Having pointed out all the ways Lost Girl fits within the genre framework, it is much more important that Lost Girl breaks those rules. No good genre show ever existed that did not seek to be imaginative, take risks, or be original in some form. Genre is a culture of ideas. But while there is a subset of fans who relish “the game,” and elevate the rules of genre above all else, if a show is not willing to break those rules, it will soon lose an essential quality of being genre. A good example of this is Star Trek. It had played by its own rules for so long, it had become stagnant. The solution was: Break the rules. So that is what J.J. Abrams did when he rebooted the franchise. Not only did he break the rules in the first movie, but he went further and generated controversy in the second movie over his representation of women. Ultimately, being controversial and breaking rules are part of the job of being genre.
To that end, one of the most endearing qualities of genre shows is they do not point out when they are breaking rules. They just assume their audience is smart enough to figure it out for themselves. Where other television shows develop storylines about their own controversies, genre shows develop storylines out of their own controversies. Star Trek never pointed out that Uhura was a black woman, or that she was fourth in command of the Enterprise. They just let her and Kirk kiss and gave her the conn. Buck Rogers never pointed out that Wilma Deering was an ace starfighter pilot who outranked him. She just gave him orders and rescued him occasionally. So when Lost Girl formatted itself with a bisexual female action hero whose superpower was sex, they did not make a big deal about it. They just established their mythos and moved on.
But while it might seem that female leads on television series are no longer anomalies, if you look around, they are somewhat hard to find..anywhere. For instance, discounting reality shows, 60 Minutes and Sunday Night Football, there was not a single top ten series in the 2012-2013 U.S. prime time season that did not have a white male lead. There were none in the top twenty rankings either. You have to peruse the top thirty rankings before you stumble on any female leads at all.
If female leads are rare, then female action leads are often on the endangered species list. Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager and Xena: Warrior Princess retired in 2001, followed shortly thereafter by Buffy, in 2003. The reboot of The Bionic Woman failed in 2007; and although True Blood (2008) and The Vampire Diaries (2009) appeared in its wake, most of the leading action was left to the male co-stars. Sanctuary snuck in a strong, heroic female lead in 2008, that seemed to fly largely under the radar. Lost Girl premiered in 2010. The two Canadian shows crossed a season together, and then Sanctuary ended in 2011. At the same time, the highly anticipated reboot of Wonder Woman failed to receive a pick-up. But since then, genre seems to have awoken itself to the concept once more; Once Upon A Time premiered in 2011, followed by Continuum (2012), Beauty and the Beast (2012), Orphan Black (2013), Once Upon A Time in Wonderland (2013) and Bitten (2014).
When Lost Girl did its initial world building, it used a very old, classical fantasy trope; i.e. the concept of Light and Dark among the Fae. The divide may be better known as the Seelie and Unseelie Courts of the fairies, the elves, the Sidhe, or the Sith. It comes from Gaelic folklore, and is a staple of fantasy prose and poetry. Genre film knows it well from Star Wars, where the Sith Lords and the Jedi Masters control the Light and Dark sides of the Force. But this is the first time I have seen the concept used in a television series.
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
– William Butler Yeats, “The Hosting of The Sidhe”
Within this high fantasy concept, Lost Girl established a fairly generic Fae Of The Week episode structure. But the show did something unique. It seemed to make a concerted effort to focus on fantasy concepts from non-westernized mythos. Although there is the occasional Brownie, or Selkie, the majority of creatures were things like Aswangs, Bunyips, Kitsunes, Tikbalangs, and Cherufes, which hail in order from; Filipino, Aboriginal, Japanese, Phillipine and Chilean mythology. Not only were these largely unknown to western audiences, but the mix and match with standard fantasy elements creates a startling and unique palette for the series.
When the show does incorporate more well known elements, such as a Siren, or a Brownie, it often makes an effort to subvert the standard characterization; the Siren is male instead of female; the Brownie is a cross-dresser; the character of Trick, instead of being defined by his height as a gnome, or a dwarf or a hobbit, is the legendary Blood King. I can think of no other show that is so multicultural in its mythology, or that makes such an effort to avoid its own tropes.
Beyond its use of a feminine heroic lead and its mixing of worldwide fantasy lore, Lost Girl is best known, by far, for breaking the rules when it comes to sexuality. The lead character is a succubus. Succubi are known to fantasy lovers as a demon figure, taken from medieval literature, who assumes the female form in order to rape men while they sleep. Most of the myths surrounding succubi reflect the pervasive maelstrom of negative attitudes towards women’s sexuality. Although not wholly negative from all sources, the folklore includes sexual denigration and the forced pregnancy of other women with demon offspring. Within genre television, the succubus is rare. The X-Files featured one incarnation in episode 321, “Avatar.” The portrayal was ambiguous, but disturbing.
Lost Girl takes the bulk of those negative connotations and neatly upends them. The first thing it does is fly in the face of the sexist convention that male action heroes can enjoy sexual freedom, while their female counterparts are stifled. Nearly all female genre icons, such as Captain Janeway, Aeryn Sun, Samantha Carter, and Buffy, went largely untapped as sources of sexuality.
But Bo is quite different. She is a powerful and sympathetic lead whose sexuality is the source of power for her character. The show has been largely fearless in embracing that notion as a positive force on numerous fronts. It has been notable for a lack of slut-shaming, a willingness to push sexual boundaries, the subversion of gender tropes, and the portrayal of strong female characters and their relationships. It has also stepped up strongly in attempting to present a same-sex relationship as equal, viable, valid and powerful in both emotional content and sexual identity. Torchwood was equally powerful in presenting a main cast member as a bisexual man; and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was among the first shows to ever portray a lesbian relationship between a main cast couple on mainstream television. As a mainstream cable production, Lost Girl represents a step forward in such portrayals. Together, all of these show have reached the pinnacle of what genre shows strive towards: they have achieved cult classic status. But their achievements are associated with something few genre shows have done before; the politics of sex. They make curious bedfellows.
Sex and Romance: How the Unwritten Rules of Romance Clash with the Genre Sensibilities of Lost Girl
While Lost Girl has made a name for itself in its defiant embrace of feminine sexuality, I would hesitate to say the same thing about its romantic sensibilities. The show has developed several long-term romantic and sexual relationships, which is noteworthy for a genre show. But I would not confuse Lost Girl with a paranormal romance. A paranormal romance follows the unwritten rules of romance. Genre shows do not.
In general, I would say genre shows are quite keen on leaving their lone heroic leads, well, alone. Romantic relationships are usually fleeting, botched, ignored, subtext, dismissed, failed, doomed or sublimated to such an extent, they may as well not exist.
Across the course of nearly five decades, the Star Trek franchise was notorious for failing to carry through a successful romantic relationship for the majority its main characters. Not a single one of its Captains was allowed to retire off the screen in a happy romantic state; or, in most cases, any romantic state at all. They famously had to reshoot the final scenes between Captain Sisko and his wife in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, because Avery Brooks was concerned it would fulfill a stereotype about black men abandoning their families. So instead of telling her he would never see her again, he said he would he would return some day.
Stargate, Sanctuary, Buffy, Angel, and Battlestar Galactica all suffered from doomed romances. The character of Samantha Carter was known by the nickname of “Black Widow Carter” by her cast mates because the writers reliably killed every single romantic interest she ever had on the show outside of Jack O’Neill.
The X-Files dragged us through years of random sexual tension, only to send us off with a kiss in the last episode. Firefly flirted through its entire 16 episode run and one movie with the incipient relationship between Inara Serra and Malcolm Reynolds, only to leave the matter unfulfilled and unresolved. If Farscape had not been saved by its fandom’s demand for a movie, it would have left Aeryn and Crichton dead at the end of its last season.
Xena, of course, made its reputation on the back of a subtext lesbian relationship which the show never formally acknowledged on air. Warehouse 13 followed suit. Torchwood made a jumbled mess out of all of their romantic relationships. Defiance has gamely ignored, or thrown all of its romantic possibilities under the bus. Continuum suffers from a marriage separated by a time traveling heroine. Sam and Dean in Supernatural could never commit to anyone but themselves.
On the other hand, genre shows are excellent at intense group relationships, such as those between crew mates or partners. In fact, Lost Girl is in the process of developing that exact dynamic in the fourth season with its ensemble faemily. They are also good at transitioning unresolved sexual tension or brief sexual stints into intensely loyal relationships. This can be seen between Crusher and Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation; between Archer and T’Pol on Enterprise; between Jack and Gwen on Torchwood; between Janeway and Chakotay on Voyager; between Carter and Jack on Stargate; between Scully and Mulder on The X-Files. At the moment, Lost Girl seems to be working out a similar scenario between Bo and Tamsin, and Bo and Dyson.
Still, there is no doubt that Lost Girl has strong romantic relationships, particularly between Bo and Lauren. The show has patiently ushered them through a painful early teething stage into a full-blown relationship; then cycled through a break-up and is now in post break-up limbo. Genre shows almost never commit to a relationship in this manner on screen. They save it until the very end of the line if they are going to use it at all. But romance shows always put their couples through the wringer; rather like they are laundering the relationship through washing cycles until it can come out clean. Like a true genre show, Lost Girl refuses to commit to anything; and like a true romance, it has, so far at least, kept all of its romantic options in play.
Paranormal romances have become popular in recent years, and there are several of them currently airing; Beauty and the Beast, Bitten, and The Vampire Diaries come to my mind. These show can be relied upon to work as a romance with genre elements; genre shows will work like a genre show, sometimes with romantic elements. Although genre shows have loosened up considerably in recent times, they still remain hamstrung by the perception, particularly among hard sci-fiers, gamers and comic book fans, that genre is based within the male sphere (whether that is true or not is beyond the scope of this essay). What I mean is that genre traditions are sexist. By tradition, genre shows like Star Wars and Star Trek were aimed towards boys, rather like science, swords and starships. Romance, which was aimed towards girls, worked like a dirty word in the same context; hence why the shows are traditionally so bad at it. It harkens back to the old geek boy days when the notion of true love would make a proper nerd vomit. It was considered the province of the pink books section over in the library.
In romantic settings, there are some unwritten rules that seem to dominate. First of them is that there is an OTP (One True Pairing) at work. Secondly, that the relationship between two specific characters will dominate the show. Thirdly, that no matter what they say or what they do, they will only ever truly love one person. Fourthly, the sex is always awesome. Finally, that these two people will always end up together in the end.
Raise your hand when you see a rule Lost Girl has broken!
So does Lost Girl work on the level of a genre show, or the level of a romance show?
*Very important! Disclaimer: I am no expert on anything, and all of this stuff is all just my personal opinions.
. Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2014. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.
. Farber, Gary, “What Damon Knight Actually Said About Science Fiction.” Amygdala, 04 Sept. 2009. Web. 25 Jan. 2014
. A line of dialogue, said by Lauren to Bo, from episode 102: “Where There’s A Will, There’s A Fae
. Both male characters could not resist playing with the breasts of their female bodies
. The process by which fans attempt to find scientific inaccuracies in “hard” science fiction works
. Genre trivia moment! Amanda Tapping, from Stargate and Sanctuary, played the role of the succubus in this episode.
Samantha Carter was played by Amanda Tapping, who also played the lead role in Sanctuary