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Against the Grain

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"No, no, no (No, no, no)
Stick to the stuff you know
If you wanna be cool
Follow one simple rule
Don't mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status quo!"
— "Stick To The Status Quo", High School Musical

Every protagonist has a goal in a story. It's elemental to plot-building, character development and establishing genre. But in stories where the character is just one of many similar beings (in a colony, a company or other collectives), one of the most effective ways to make them stand out is to disregard stereotypes and class traits.

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Against the Grain entails plots where a character doesn't want to follow social expectations. There may be years of cultural standards, evolved traits or requirements that create a consistent idea of their kind. But the protagonist, unlike the others, doesn't want to fit into this mould. They seek something completely different, much to their peers' disappointment. The trope commonly has older, more conservative members judging the character for their radical behaviour. These guardians could be strict fathers or controlling mothers who are Knight Templar Parents or conservative elders who have their heads in the sand. An exaggerated example similar to this is Individuality Is Illegal.

The character wanting to be an individual is usually rewarded for their behaviour, and may even spark change across their society. Those who refused change or were against it are thus depicted as foolish and closed-minded, and often receive comeuppance for resisting change. Parents in the trope may realise they need to stop dictating their offspring's behaviour, and start accepting their independence.

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The trope can sometimes be political in nature, most commonly about gender roles. A woman may find expectations of her gender restricting, so she defies everyone else and chooses her own path. In childrens' films especially, the alienation of being different may be an allusion to racism or homophobia.

Another iteration of the trope is that someone is incapable of doing a certain task, and the plot is either about them reckoning with their inabilities or about their journey to accomplish their destined tasks. The attitudes around the character usually still remained however. They may be bullied for their differences, and family members might feel helpless or embarrassed about the character's failures.

The trope is used frequently in children's animated films. This is perhaps to inspire young audiences to go against societal expectations. Be Yourself is arguably the most utilised Aesop in children's films, and it's simple enough for young viewers to understand. The trope could also relate to a child's resistance to their parent's wishes for them; children often feel alienated by their parents because of age-gaps, tastes in pop culture and differing talents or attributes. Animals feature in the trope in numerous examples, likely because animals have clear-cut behavioural traits, and seeing them defy these traits creates a comedic effect. They are also easily animated and well-liked among children.

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Compare with I Am What I Am, Deliberate Values Dissonance, Screw Destiny, Calling the Old Man Out, Square Race, Round Class.


Examples:

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    Advertising 
  • In an ad for the grain-based chip Grain Waves, an anthropomorphic young boy grain wants to grow up to be a chip, despite his father telling him that grains don't grow up to be chips, and everyone else in his family growing up to be bread (except for his uncle, who was porridge). The grain sticks to his dream and becomes the first Grain Waves chip, only to be eaten.

    Anime & Manga 
  • The Legend of Sun Knight: This turns out to be the case for just about all of the Knights, who are chosen early in childhood by the current Knight as a replacement. Not just in skill, appearance and ability, the Knights are forced to adopt the personalities, likes, dislikes and even relationships of the original Knights to preserve the sense of continuity of their organization.
    • Sun is forced to act as a Chaste Hero, be best buddy to Earth Knight (they sabotage each other's flirtation attempts whenever they see each other), an alcoholic who pretends to faint after three cups, can use all magical elements but has to restrict himself to Light, and is best friends with Judgement Knight but has to show polite contempt as the originals couldn't stand each other.
    • Storm Knight is a Casanova flirting with every woman he sees and skipping out on his duties. In reality he's a workaholic spymaster (and still a virgin).
    • Cloud Knight is an agoraphobe, Stone Knight is easygoing but is supposed to be stubborn, while Moon Knight has to appear to look down on everyone... and as a result, literally cannot lower his head.

    Comic Books 
  • Hellboy: Just about every supernatural creature Hellboy meets tells him he (and more specifically his hand) will bring forth the Apocalypse. He evokes Screw Destiny and disregards their prophecies. One such creature even makes Hellboy's sawn-off horns grow back, but he snaps them off and uses them as weapons.

    Fan Works 

    Films - Animated 
  • Antz: The movie revolves around Z, a worker ant who is dissatisfied with his place in ant society and longs for something more. He meets and falls in love with Bala, the ant colony's princess who also feels stifled in her role.
  • Bee Movie: After graduating, Barry realises he's doomed to a life of non-stop labor and questions the role he's been born into. When he decides he doesn't want to work for the hive, his parents grow concerned and question his motives, especially after he reveals he's befriended a human. The trope is somewhat subverted, as the other bees adapt Barry's ethics and stop producing honey, resulting in catastrophic effects on the environment. Barry realises he shouldn't have meddled with the status quo.
  • A Bug's Life: The main protagonist Flik prefers creative thinking and inventions over gathering food the same way the other ants do. This makes him a pariah within the colony and his standing isn't helped when his latest invention accidentally destroys the ants' food offering to their grasshopper oppressors.
  • The Emoji Movie:
    • Gene is supposed to maintain a "meh" face due to being a "meh" emoji, but instead displays a variety of emotions. This messes up his ability to get scanned as a "meh" emoji, so the leader of the phone, Smiler, sends robots to kill him.
    • It's later revealed that Jailbreak was supposed to be a princess emoji, but she ran away and changed her outfit so she wouldn't be pigeonholed into a gender stereotype.
  • Happy Feet: Singing is an inherent to the penguins' culture, but Mumble has a terrible voice. When Mumble wishes to dance instead of sing, he disappoints the governing elders and his father (who feels he is to blame after dropping Mumble when he was an egg). By the end however, the colony accept Mumble's quirks. Dancing even becomes commonly practiced.
  • Mulan: Mulan struggles with expectations to marry and embarrasses her family after disastrous results from consultations with the match-maker. She further defies expectations by disguising herself as a man to represent her father in the war.
  • Ratatouille: Remy is expected to live his life scavenging for scraps and avoiding humans, but he can't deny his passion for cuisine. This embarrasses his father, and creates concerns for Remy's welfare. After reuniting in Paris, Remy's Dad shows him a pest-control shop that displays various types of rat poison and even dead rats in the window. He encourages Remy to stop mingling with the humans, and accept what comes with being a rat. Remy sticks to his guns though.
    Remy's Dad: You can't change nature.
    Remy: Change is nature. And it starts when we decide.
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964): Hermey the Elf wishes to be a dentist instead of a toy-maker. This creates a controversy and shocks the others elves.
  • Shark Tale: Lenny is a shark, and expected to be carnivorous, mean and masculine. But Lenny is a vegetarian, and when he tells his Dad he's met with judgement and scorn. Lenny is expected to hunt and eat a fish, or disappoint his father. This is when he meets Oscar, who also wishes to escape living in a Hive Mind.
  • Shrek the Third: Shrek is expected to become king following his marriage to Fiona. But the royal lifestyle conflicts with his love for the swamp and other aspects of being an ogre, so he decides he will find someone else to rule. The film thus entails his search for Fiona's cousin Arthur to hand over the role to him.
  • Wreck-It Ralph has the titular Ralph rebel against his designated role as a video game villain, since he's genuinely a good guy, but everybody outcasts him for the role he plays in the game. He escapes his game (a very dangerous pursuit for arcade characters) and tries to win a gold medal so he can be seen as a hero for a change
  • Zootopia: Judy Hopps is a rabbit who joins the police force and thus believed to be docile and physically inferior to the other officers (who are mostly predatory animals or megafauna). Over the course of the film however, she investigates major crimes and shows the force that her species doesn't dictate her traits (while also realising she and other herbivores aren't above having similar prejudices towards predators who want to break the cycle).

    Films - Live Action 
  • A Cinderella Story: Austin's dad expects him to take over the family auto-business rather than go to college, or perhaps do something related to football. Unbeknownst to his Dad, Austin wants to be a writer and attend Princeton. Similarly, Sam's step-mother Fiona intends for her to work at the diner as a waitress, and attend to Fiona's various needs at home. Sam also wants to go to Princeton, and both she and Austin achieve their dreams in the end, much to their parents' disappointment.
  • High School Musical: Loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, Troy and Gabriella both struggle with expectations around their extra-curricula studies. Troy plays on the basketball team and is coached by his Dad, but after joining the high school theatre production he questions his future as an athlete. Meanwhile Gabriella is a hard-working mathlete that also becomes distracted by her role in the high school play. Their confusion around social roles is even incorporated into an elaborate musical sequence set in the cafeteria.
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail: In one of the film's segments, a royal figure informs his son that he will one day rule the kingdom. The son doesn't want this however, he instead wants to "sing" (the sudden swell of music suggests he's about the burst into song, but his father stops it). The father reminds him about the son's upcoming wedding. This is also distressing for the son, as he doesn't like the bride and evidently the marriage has been arranged for him.
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding: Toula's parents just want her to work in the family restaurant and marry a nice Greek boy, but her eyes are set on the travel industry, and she falls for a fairly Anglo man played by John Corbett.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: Elizabeth Swann is the daughter of a royal governor and expected to wear corsets, practice proper etiquette and marry someone in power. She struggles with the expectations however, and after being kidnapped by a group of pirates realises she prefers a life of adventure.
  • The Princess Diaries:
    • At seventeen years of age, Mia discovers something life-changing: She is in line to be princess of a European country called Genovia. The film entails her struggle with etiquette, image and fashion as royal officials prepare her for royalty. Although she is adamant at first, she eventually accepts her role with open arms.
    • In the sequel to the film, Mia must choose a bachelor to marry so she can be crowned queen. Due to her clumsy nature, she tends to embarrass herself in front of prospective husbands, royal officials and the paparazzi. During her wedding, she decides that she won't go through with it, and votes to change the rule that requires she marry to be queen.

    Literature 
  • Deptford Mice: In Fleabee's Fortune, Fleabee wants to be kind and not hurt anything. This puts her into conflict with her parents and the other rats living in the sewer, who want her to be vile and despicable. She's eventually able to escape from them and become a rat-witch.

    Live Action TV 
  • Six Feet Under: Nate was practically born into the funeral business, but rather than following in the footsteps of his father, he left home at 17. David takes over as funeral director, and Nate eventually joins the business after much deliberation.

    Video Games 
  • Dragon Age: Origins: Dagna the dwarf, a minor side character, has a dream of studying magic. In the Dragon Age universe, dwarves are physically incapable of actually casting spells, but this doesn't deter her. She asks the Grey Warden to deliver a letter to the head of Fereldan's Mage Circle for her asking if she can come to the Circle to learn about magic. Regardless of the outcome, by the time of Dragon Age: Inquisition she has become the world's top magical theorist and knows more about how magic works than possibly anyone in the world's history.

    Web Animation 
  • In CollegeHumor's video "Predator's Teenage Son", a predator catches a human and asks his son to kill it. His son (donning a Justin Bieber-esque haircut) doesn't want to, and says he's a vegetarian. The father feels disappointed by this, and tries to educate him on the importance of being a predator. The captured human, noticing the father-son conflict, explains that he experienced something similar after his son didn't want to play football. The two predators reconcile.
    Predator Dad: My father was a hunter, his father was a hunter, everyone in our planet is a hunter!
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