The Evolution and Retirement of Character Tropes

Since the end of 2019 into early 2020, I’ve been watching a lot of video essays on tropes in both novels and film, seeing their origins and how they have evolved or died out in today’s society. Much of these are Western tropes, although I am familiar with a few others that I’ve come across from other cultures.

It’s fascinating how much can change over say…30 years, when it comes to what is acceptable and what isn’t.

When I watch films like Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club, there are a few very key scenes that make me extremely uncomfortable. Scenes that my parents questioned as teenagers, but didn’t think much of at the time.

The same goes for books. A trope I’ve never been into is the perfect girl who is good at absolutely everything…she’s smart and pretty but doesn’t know it, and she’s extremely well-rounded and everyone is madly in love with her. I believe this is best known as the Mary Sue trope.

I’m sure that I’m not the only person who dislikes this type of character trope, but there are so many that have either evolved or have become obsolete.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy a good 80s and 90s movie, but in a lot of the comedies the jokes being made raise a lot of red flags, at least now in 2020. We’ve seen such a shift not only in tropes but in humour as well. What is considered acceptable in 2020s media may be unacceptable in 2030.

I’ve seen a lot of video essays on tropes like The Manic Pixie Dream Girl or The Bad Boy, and how these tropes although once popular have either evolved or completely lost peoples interest.

For example, The Bad Boy trope has become less and less prevalent as time goes by. On the same spectrum we’ve also seen a shift in The Nice Guy trope as well, with shows like You depicting both types of characters through a twisted lens.

In a lot of my Shakespeare courses in university we studied tropes like The Fool, and how characters like Falstaff, The Porter and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were used for comedic relief and to keep the audiences attention. These characters were not only present in comedies, but also had roles in tragedies as well. The Fool is a trope that is still present today in both books and film, and audiences either love or hate this character, depending on how they are presented. More often than not, we see these types of characters…ones much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are basically Hamlet’s dumb college buddies, in stuff like horror movies.

In horror series like American Horror Story or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, there is always that one incredibly dumb jerk, who you can’t help but laugh at…even when things go horribly wrong for them. An example of this is when the jocks in Sabrina, who have been bullying Theo (previously known as Suzie for people on season 1), get turned into pigs. It’s easy to laugh at this, because they were jerks. It is a moment to laugh for the audience among all the other scary, horrible things going on in Greendale.

The Dumb Jock itself, is a trope that falls under the umbrella of The Fool. A trope that’s been around since…who knows the 80s? I’m sure a similar version of this character existed beforehand in films from the 40s and so forth, but the teen movie genre really took off in the 80s. When you watch an 80s, 90s or early 2000s teen film, you can usually spot this character, along with other tropes that fit into this genre. The fact that The Dumb Jock is still present in teen movies, books and television today shows how this character has really made its mark in the genre.

So why do these tropes go out of style over time? Well, people change. What was acceptable behaviour in the 90s may not be acceptable today. There are tropes from shows that I watched when I was 14, that I’m repulsed by at 24. As I’ve grown up, so has my understanding of what these tropes can represent about our society.

I’ve been watching anime…pretty much my entire life, and one trope that I have always hated was the Jealous Boyfriend/Love Interest. As a little girl it upset me to see a boy pin a girl to a wall and berate her for talking to another guy. As I got older, I disliked seeing it even more, having witnessed this type of behaviour among my peers as an early teenager.

When my niece was around 5 r 6, she was watching a video with my sister and I where a boy did this to a girl, and she was furious. A 6 year old knows that it “isn’t nice to push people” and that it also “isn’t nice to yell at your friends.” It was an eye opener as to how this trope, has really died out over the last decade, and for a good reason.

This type of character promotes violent behaviour towards women, and tries to disguise it as “cute” because the love interest “is so in love with her.” I can’t tell you how many animes I have watched, directed towards a male or female audience (shonen or shojo), that have shown this type of behaviour. Even in new releases. I still read about it in novels as well, however I am seeing less and less of it in film and television…and frankly I believe it is because of shows like You that twist the lens on these tropes of The Nice Guy and The Jealous Lover. By giving us an extreme version of these tropes, we see them for what they really are, and are able to either correct them or retire them.

Through my exploration of these tropes, I’ve really come to learn a lot about how we portray others in the media, and how important it is to represent them properly…because I honestly don’t think I can stomach another film with a Sassy Black Girl or Smart Asian Nerd. I want to see people of colour being written with careful consideration, and with the same respect and love as white characters in Western film and books. I want to see racialized tropes dismantled and retired, and instead have characters of colour written as people versus harmful stereotypes, with limitations.

Not all tropes are bad, obviously…and they exist in storytelling for a reason, however as I learned from a guest speaker we had in school, who taught us about the oral tradition of storytelling, these tropes and themes need to evolve with the times so they can be relevant in today’s society. That is something about the oral tradition that I find so wonderful. That the same story can be passed on for generations and be told to and by many different people, and evolve to keep its audience captivated.

We still have this evolution in written works, but it takes longer because of our need to preserve things and keep them as they are. Change can be scary…but sometimes the change that scares us, can be good, just like taking the training wheels off of a bicycle.

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