Seven Tropes We Should Retire.

King Solomon wrote in the Book of Ecclesiastes that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that was circa 970 B.C., so you can imagine how recycled and overwarmed pretty much everything is now. As a pop culture connoisseur, I find Solomon’s screed particularly true of contemporary lit, film, and TV.

Take any show, flick, or recent read you’re raving about. If you think hard enough, you’ll find a 50-year-old premise it mirrors. Then take that source premise and trace it back another 50 years. It’s quite the tail-chaser.

But just because we’ve seen it all before doesn’t mean old premises can’t be improved. As you’ll likely assert about that new favorite of yours, innovation/inventiveness still exist and it goes a long way.

Even so, there are some storytelling tropes that even the best creative spin doctor should leave to die a dusty, abandoned death.

Here they are:

1. When glasses (or the removal of glasses) make our hero unrecognizable.

Whether it’s related to a superhero’s alter ego or a geek to chic romcom makeover, stop trying to convince actual adult audiences with GEDs and high school diplomas and so on that other actual adults can’t see what’s super-obvious: Clark Kent is Superman.

2. When there’s a Big Secret it’d make more sense to tell.

This often ties into the alter-ego thing. Look, the damsel is gonna be in distress whether she knows your secret identity or not. If you told her, she could help you keep it secret from the people who really don’t need to know it. Like COINTELPRO.

Now, if this were just limited to the mythos of superheroes, we could let it ride. But way, way too many plots try to convince audiences that the protagonist’s secret would be so life-shattering, if told, that worlds would disintegrate. It happens in romantic settings when lovers don’t disclose their past for fear their paramours will reject them. It happens when adoptive parents try to hide the truth of their kid’s true genetic identity. It happens when someone doesn’t want the people around them to know they’re rich because they want people to Like Them for Them. It happens with super spies and double agents.

And when it’s finally revealed, after going on so long, the audience is pretty ambivalent about who finds out (since we knew it all along), it’s always anti-climatic. Worlds rarely shatter. Romances are reinforced rather than ripped apart.

It’s played. Let’s move on.

3. When a character bets that they can win someone’s affection (also known as the “But that was before I knew you” trope).

What would mainstream romantic comedies (and melodramas like Cruel Intentions, pictured above) do, without the “But that was before I knew you” trope? This one has really made the rounds. It finds its way into sitcoms, chick lit, young adult fiction, teen comedies, and traditional romantic comedies. “Yes,” one lead will say to another, after chasing him to an airport terminal or prom lobby or open court, “I did bet [insert simpering James Spaderesque antagonist here] that I could bag you.” Then, a meaningful step forward or a gaze lowered in contrition: “But that was before I knew you.”

My favorite contemporary use of this is also my favorite use of glasses to make our hero unrecognizable: She’s All That. You just have to appreciate the ridiculousness of everything about that movie to get this. No one could look less unaltered by the removal of glasses than Rachael Leigh Cook. And no one could be as unconvincing in his delivery of that pivotal, transformative line than Freddie Prinze, Jr.

4. When a character just happens to be a magical negro.

This one’s tricky. The term, “magical negro” is certainly overused these days. But then, so is this trope. A good rule of thumb for determining whether or not a black character is “magical” is to answer the following: is the black character a person or a plot device? In white films, black people tend to be best friends/coworkers or the Force That Alters Everything. See: Hancock. I Am Legend. I, Robot. Seven Pounds. And for non-Will Smith flicks: the easiest reference is, of course, The Green Mile.

Basically, if the black character’s existence is predicated on improving white folks’ lives (or, as in the case of I Am Legend, regenerating life altogether), then you’ve got yourself a magical negro.

I suspect that the magical negro emerged as either an overcompensation for or a counterpoint to the White Person “Saves” the Minorities trope. Either way, this one’s just as problematic as that one.

5. When a shrew is tamed.


This predates Shakespeare, but he popularized it, and it never seems to go away. From 10 Things I Hate About You to Deliver Us From Eva, this trope is as sexist as it is ubiquitous. We’re supposed to believe that the uptight woman’s life will be greatly improved by the cruelty of a smarmy, condescending man. And there’s no irony. It’s always played straight, as if to say: it’s a fundamental fact of life that a woman’s temperament is far sunnier and more submissive, after the “right” guy gets her laid.

This one persists because people actually believe it. But if it must keep cropping up in popular culture, can we at least skewer it more often?

6. When characters swap lives.

Ugh. There are few things I hate more than the bi-annual trotting out of this trope. From Pudd’nhead Wilson to Freaky Friday to My Mother Was Never a Kid to Like Father, Like Son to the soon-to-be-released buddy flick with Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman, this one should be retired for good. I’ve never seen it succeed at what it aims to do, which is, I guess, to serve as a cautionary tale? Something about being grateful for the life you have or walking a mile in someone’s shoes? Right. The moral’s as cliche as the method.

7. When characters are star-crossed lovers.

Get over yourselves–and your uber-controlling families. It’s not that hard. And, outside of Romeo and Juliet, the consequences are rarely death. So if you’re really ’bout it, stop angsting and moping and pining and just hook up already. Sheesh.

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slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: http://stacialbrown.com and here: http://beyondbabymamas.com.

21 comments to Seven Tropes We Should Retire.

  • Can we also retire the “seemingly perfect boyfriend/fiancĂ© turns out to be an unapologetic cheater paving the way for our hero to get with his desired love” trope?

  • Scipio Africanus

    You know what? After all these years, I’m just now getting the whole McDowell’s – ascot look that the uniforms had.

  • nichole

    another good example of the magical negro is Jennifer Hudson’s character Louise in the SATC movie. she’s literally there to manage Carrie’s life and sprinkle sage black woman *sho’nuff* advice. Louise leads Carrie to find her true self, i mean, happiness, i mean love, in the form of Big’s password-protected emails, just before Louise herself conveniently disappears from the rest of the film, her good deed complete.

    re: the shrew trope– the examples you list are re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s play so i think something that doesn’t necessarily directly shoot back to him would’ve been good, too, like The Ugly Truth.

    i’d like to retire the Playboy Falls Head Over Heels for the Woman who Refuses to Fall for His Usual Tricks trope: the upcoming Crazy, Stupid Love and 50 First Dates are good examples. (full disclosure: i will be at CSL quick fast because i love me some Ryan Gosling.)

    • slb

      Deliver Us from Eva is an intentional reimagining of The Taming of the Shrew? Really? I wouldn’t have guessed that, though in retrospect, it seems obvious, I guess. With 10 Things, it was really deliberate, with the naming of the characters and the school and a really close following of the plot.

      I’ve never seen The Ugly Truth, b/c I can’t stomach Gerard Butler. Is it still Taming of the Shrew if the moral makeover recipient is male? (There’s probably another trope for that. lol)

      On Gosling: you and me both, sugah.

      • nichole

        in The Ugly Truth, Katherine Heigl is an uptight, controlling woman who asks her dates questions from a printed piece of paper. Butler is the television equivalent of a shock-jock, who teaches her how to relax and “let down her hair.” there’s also the Cyrano de Bergerac trope involved. Heigl meets The Man of Her Dreams and Butler coaches her on how to win that guy over but soon falls in love with her himself. and of course, even as Heigl is gallivanting all over the world with the Dream Man, she keeps thinking of Butler.

        as you can imagine, this film is no good. it could also be filed under “Women Don’t Know What They Really Want Even When They Say They Do.”

  • Fantastic list. Seems like the changing outfits/makeover montage ought to be in there (whether in earnest or –shudder– knowingly ironic).

    Serious question: Is Hancock a Magical Negro or just a black superhero? When I hear the term my go-to is always Green Mile or maybe Bagger Vance. But superheroes are kind of “magical” by definition–so is it possible to be a black superhero and *not* a Magical Negro? Can a character be one and not the other?

    • slb

      Hancock has a lot of weird racial baggage for me. A lot of it stems from the Jason Bateman line, “The grownups are talking.” (Bateman says this when Smith confronts Theron about her superpowers. It’s a conversation that Smith belongs in, far more than Bateman, but Bateman “checks” him and Smith stops talking.) I think, in some ways, Hancock was being used as a career-starter for the “good-hearted” Bateman. They go out of their way to characterize Bateman as a “good man,” a humanitarian and all that. And he’s tasked with “grooming” Hancock, a lot of which has to do with talking veeery slowly (it reminds of colonization, kind of).

      So I guess Hancock is different than other black superheroes, because he’s being used to advance or “better” the already “morally superior” white guy. You know?

  • Steph

    This is fantastic. Another “magical negro” – Thomas from the second generation of “Skins.” I haven’t seen Series 4, but his intro episode made it clear that he was 1. wonderful and 2. in a different world from everyone else.

    One more thing – Pudd’nhead Wilson uses the identity swap to show terrible, terrible things. No one ends up happy when the switch is “rectified.”

  • -k-

    Can I add “When a woman who has had, or worse, enjoyed sex must be punished (i.e. killed)”? I’m looking at you, every horror film ever made (and LOST, I still can’t believe they actually did that to Ana Lucia).

  • slb

    You know, I liked Pudd’nhead Wilson, and admittedly, it doesn’t really belong here. The other examples are silly, implausible, and involve some mystical occurrence. The Twain piece is serious, plausible, and instructive.

    Its only similarity is that it uses the life-switch premise to “teach” people a lesson.

  • MH8D

    Also, no sitcom should be allowed to resurrect the ghosts of christmas past, present and future and the selfish asshole’s journey of redemption from ‘A Christmas Carol’ ever again.

  • cm

    another race related serious question:

    I’m not too familiar with the “magical negro” trope in general, though I definitely understand how Bagger Vance and Green Mile fit that description.

    But why I am Legend? Are black guys not allowed to save humanity? It’s not as though it was something in particular about his being black that made him the hero (maybe the loving Bob Marley thing, but who doesn’t love Bob Marley?). I’m pretty sure if there were a white Will Smith equivalent in that role it wouldn’t have changed the movie at all. In fact white guys have played the role in previous incarnations of this movie.

    I had a similar thought about Hancock, but you addressed it convincingly in a previous comment, so maybe there’s a similar answer here. As I white guy I cringe inside (and sometimes outside) every time I hear some idiot make bogus reverse racism claims, if I’ve unknowingly done so I apologize.

    • slb

      …. I got nothin’. I was just on a Will Smith roll (can’t believe I forgot Bagger Vance, but then… I haven’t seen Bagger Vance. So). I could make a justification for this film’s inclusion on the list, something about the fact that the only other survivors we encounter (at least that I remember) are white. But that’d be a reach. And Alice Braga throws a wrench in that.

      The character has a bit of a messiah complex. But he’s probably not a magical negro.

      Let’s strike I Am Legend from the record.

  • Liz

    After watching a recent movie, I got so irritated that I had to return to this awesome post and suggest one more trope that needs to be retired: the (usually only) person of color who dies/sacrifices themselves saving the white man/woman. Sometimes this is used to show the white person that they shouldn’t be racist. Greeeaaat.

  • #5 is just the worst. I didn’t know I was a feminist until a few years ago (when I found out what that really meant) and I’ve ALWAYS rolled my eyes at these movies. “10 Things I Hate About You” is definitely one of the best examples.

    How do you turn a strong, independent woman into a boy-crazy softie? Duh, super awesome dimples on a strong-jawed hottie. Barf.

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