I haven’t done one of these trope analyses in a while, and I was hesitant to get into this one because it’s got a lot more going on than I can really address here, but I’m going to give it a go.
When I say “star-crossed” I’m applying it very broadly. This means any situation in which either friends or lovers (or anyone in some kind of meaningful relationship) have to cross or endure a significant divide of either culture, class, experience, prejudice, etc. What I am not talking about here is situations in which the lovers are 100% okay with everything and have absolutely no issues between themselves, but society is looking down on them and sneering. I clarify this, because I am talking about the challenges associated with the relationship itself, not how the relationship is treated by those outside it. There is probably another, more accurate term out there for what I’m talking about, but this was all I could think of.
First, three things:
I actually do really love this trope when done well.
It is often done poorly, without any thought or examination or proper context.
It resonates–like most age-old tropes–for a reason.
So, as per usual, I’m going to start with the problems and work my way towards the good stuff.
When the trope doesn’t work, why is that? What are its main flaws?
It’s often romanticized when it shouldn’t be.
What do I mean here? I mean, of course there is Romance (in the classical sense, as in atmosphere and thrill, not necessarily a romantic pairing) in overcoming obstacles, but there’s more to it than that, and that “more” is often neglected.
Let’s take a super classic example of this trope: the servant girl who falls in love with the prince. People love this story. You could read nothing but some variation on this for the rest of your life and probably never run out of books!
But the truth is, that in many historical contexts (which applies to a lot of fantasy that has a historical setting parallel) the disparity in experience, education, and treatment meant that people of low station (and I’m not even talking slaves alone, just any low station) were often scarcely viewed as human by those of station and power. Or they were seen as a inherently inferior type of human. Horrifying, but true in many times and places. And the way society worked (and in some cases still works) reenforced these beliefs, because those of “lower station” rarely had access to the education, arts, culture, etc. that might “humanize” them to their social superiors.
So Mr. Prince-guy would have to do far more than clutch his heart and say “Egads, she is so beautiful, I love her!” He would have to look at her and come to the realization that, despite their very real differences in experience, she is not just a package of simple functions and desires in human form: she is capable of thoughts and desires just as varied and complex as his. And crossing that bridge would be a big philosophical deal, not easily overcome by mere romantic inclination, and subject to many struggles and setbacks and misunderstandings. Just as it takes a whole lifetime to build a good marriage, it can take a long time, and a lot of work, to dismantle a closely held prejudice.
And if Mr. Prince doesn’t cross that bridge or dismantle that belief? That’s a whole other ball of wax. Then she is mere object to him…an intrigue, a dalliance. And that isn’t romantic at all.
The point is, unless you actually deal with the ramifications of whatever social divide the people are trying to cross, then it will be false, and possibly very troubling. Something painful and destructive is being romanticized. This leads to:
2. The challenges are glossed over:
This is obviously directly related to the above. I’m going to give a contemporary real-life example for this one: Cross-cultural marriages.
Cross-cultural marriage are wonderful and beautiful and occasionally quite hard. The friends and family of mine who have cross-cultural marriages went into those marriages knowing that they had and extra set of challenges (for marriage will always be a challenge) because there was so much else they needed to learn, and so much that you cannot account for except with the simple passage of time.
Can you afford to travel to meet your new in-laws? Can they come to you? What is expected of you? Are there negative dynamics between the two cultures at large? Will the wedding be like your culture, like theirs, or both? What about child-rearing? What about native languages? Communication barriers? Does either person fear that they will lose something of who they are and where they come from? Do they fear one culture will dominate the other one until it disappears? Are there little frustrations and prejudices that pop up at times of conflict, souring the exchange?
All of these can, of course, be faced, discussed and dealt with in a loving, healthy way. But consider that, even under the most idealistic circumstances, where everyone is happy, and loving, and accepting and supportive, these challenges will still need to be faced. That is not a bad thing, but think how much greater the barriers when there is turmoil, enmity, bad history, bad blood, or anything of that sort going on. The phrase “love conquers all” is not inaccurate, but it belies the difficulty of the actual conquering part. Love is work. Friendship where there is bad history and old wounds is hard. Relationships where you still don’t understand some deep, meaningful aspects of the other person’s life…those are going to take extra effort and grace and compassion.
So when these previous two flaws are in play, it often leads to the third, or is simply replaced by it:
3. It’s a false barrier, aka, manufactured drama
This is when–whether it’s historical or a fantasy world with complex social dynamics–no one in the story acts like real people would when brought up under those harsh/divisive circumstances. Only the villains uphold the contextually unexplained social divides, and they do so simply to display their villainy, not as a complex character trait of someone raised in that society.
This is when no “good guy” holds a bad opinion bestowed by their station/culture. All the good guys don’t care about class/race/wealth/education/cultural strife! They are 100% unaffected by the social mores (at least, the bad ones) around them!
So the only reason for the star-crossed situation is to create drama where there otherwise would be none, because everyone you care about already holds the correct opinions, or the opinions we want them to hold.
So those are the problems. Oh, but when it’s done right, this can be so compelling! And the reasons for that run precisely counter to the problems above.
1. Sacrifice and overcoming obstacles ARE romantic
When a character is willing to sacrifice their convenience, reputation, wealth, status, or whatever else for a friend? That is powerful. When they are willing to sacrifice their dearly held notions about a supposed enemy, or a “class” of people they thought was “beneath” them (Pride and Prejudice for a very mild example), that too is powerful.
When a character realizes “Wait, I care about this person way too much. What? How is that possible? I may have to reframe my whole way of looking at things because of them!” That is fascinating (IF DONE RIGHT).
2. The challenges are confronted and complexity ensues
Not only is it meaningful when characters bridge cultural divides, but it packs a better punch when it doesn’t always wrap up with a neat, perfect bow. I’m thinking of a particular scene in Zen Cho’s The Sorcerer to the Crown (which I adored) in which one of the main characters, Zacharias, (who is of African descent and a former slave) has the final conversation with his adopted father, a British gentleman. It nearly brought me to tears, it was so beautiful, but I don’t think it would have been as beautiful if not for the imperfection and complexity of their relationship as portrayed throughout the book.
Zacharias and his father genuinely love each other and have a real and meaningful relationship, but it is fraught with difficulties. The father doesn’t–and can’t–fully understand what life is like for Zacharias, and what he faces due to his skin color and background. The father also bought Zacharias, and as a result Zacharias has never known his real family. There is sometimes real frustration, wounds, and anger between these two people who genuinely love each other.
The divide is bridged, but it’s not always an easy bridge to walk on.
As a result:
3. When the barrier is real and great, it is more powerful to see it come down
Obviously all these points are interrelated, but when the star-crossed thing happens and it is severe, and poses a real hindrance to a romance or a friendship, where there are real internal and external challenges to overcome, then it means a whole lot more when that happens.
There is something inherently fascinating about seeing two cultures/worlds collide, and there is something hopeful and redemptive in stories where that collision ends in love, or growth, or a rising from the ashes, rather than in (the quite equally possible) destruction or hatred or increased division.
There is actually a whole OTHER facet (or several perhaps) to the appeal of this trope, more to do with the Cinderella effect (the romantic idea of being drawn out of obscurity by someone powerful and important because you amaze and allure them, or something like that), but I decided to focus on this part instead. Maybe I’ll do the rest of it another time!