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Cyclic Trope

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This is a trope that goes through a circular pattern of change, eventually returning to its original form after several iterations.

Like this: "Fat Guys Are Jolly" gets subverted over time to "Fat Guys Are Kinda Sad And Pitiful". After a while at that value, the audience is expecting "sympathetic" Fat Guys, so it gets subverted to "Fat Guys Are Mean And Greedy". Once expectations are out there for evil Fat Guys, it gets subverted back to "Fat Guys Are Jolly".


Most cycles are bipolar, though, oscillating back and forth between two opposites that mutually subvert (or invert) each other.

See also Fleeting Demographic Rule, Popularity Polynomial. Compare and contrast with Undead Horse Trope, Evolving Trope.

Some tropes that are cyclic:

  • Action Girl: Status/appeal cycles between Amazon Chaser and No Guy Wants an Amazon.
  • The American Dream: Cycles between optimistic and pessimistic depending on the economy and general state of the union, as well as the racial and/or socioeconomic background of the writer. It also changes dramatically along with the middle-class aspirations of different eras: a modern suburban couple might well dismiss a 1950s suburban home as "too poor."
  • The Alleged Car: Depending on the decade, economy/electric cars are either seen as the sign of a thoughtful, world-conscious protagonist or a slick street racing enthusiast, or effeminate crap made by Evil Foreigners out to destroy America and worshipped by cash-strapped nerds. For larger cars, the driver will either be a nail-biting badass or a thoughtless conservative who hates the environment almost as much as they hate themselves.
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  • Basement-Dweller: In good economic times, it means the guy is a slacker and a loser. In bad economic times, it's cast as society's shortcoming.
  • The Boy Band goes through a pretty regular boom/bust cycle: from the single hottest thing in music to dormant and/or outright hated, to popular again when the next generation pokes it's head up to see if it's safe to come out. Usually, the early part of the decade will have obscenely popular boy bands which will bust during the middle. For example, in the New Tens, One Direction picked up the baton *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys carried during the early 2000s, who themselves were treading the ground that the New Kids on the Block had covered during the early Nineties. It's possible to trace it back farther through New Edition, and even back to the Jackson 5.
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  • Can't Argue with Elves/Screw You, Elves!: Both tropes cycle with each other. For example: many fantasy stories (The Lord of the Rings) use the Can't Argue with Elves trope, human audiences get bored of being continually condescended by arrogant magical races, so Screw You, Elves! becomes popular (Overlord). Many fantasy stories use the Screw You, Elves! trope, and humans appear too arrogant and foolhardy, so Can't Argue with Elves becomes popular again (Avatar). Eventually, we'll likely end up with a kind of reconstruction where fantasy elves combine a mixture of traits according to how the author feels about elves (Greyhawk).
  • Communists: The portrayal of communists cycles between Dirty Communists, Chummy Commies, or something in between such as Well-Intentioned Extremist. Prior to The Great Politics Mess-Up, the deciding factor seems to have been how good the West's relations with the Soviet Union were at that moment. Since 1991, it's been a mixed bag for fictional commies. On the one hand, the failure of the Soviet bloc means that communists will be regarded, at best, as foolishly believing in a system that doesn't work. On the other, the end of the Cold War means that there is much less reason to have communist villains in the first place.
  • Cowboy Cop: Fluctuates between protagonist and antagonist depending on how much "traditional" cops are respected.
  • Darker and Edgier and Lighter and Softer: In a market saturated by one mood, a work taking the opposite view stands out and does well, sparking a host of imitators that push the pendulum in the other direction.
  • Deconstruction: Deconstructing a genre, then deconstructing the deconstruction. The latter then set the new baseline, which may itself be deconstructed again...
  • The Dogged Nice Guy: Is he a determined and heroic go-getter who happens to be the victim of All Love Is Unrequited, or a creep with an entitlement complex? Both? Neither? It depends on the writer, and what the prevailing views of sexuality and relationships, and gender roles, happen to be in a particular time and place.
  • The Fair Folk, as well as probably most cases of Our Monsters Are Different.
  • Female sexuality: Since the dawn of time, humans have been cycling through the ideas that All Women Are Lustful and All Women Are Prudes.
  • Hair Colors: Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold to Dumb Blonde and back again, with brunette, always being the Foil for wherever blonde is today, and red hair being a more Hot-Blooded version of brunette.
  • Hipster: Recurring definition with every generation rejecting the previous batch.
  • Ideal Hero/Anti-Hero: The two fashions tend to usurp each other in turn across various media, though the dividing line can change as values march on. If the Ideal Hero dominates, writers will introduce antiheroes as a reaction to that until it's impossible to take the Ideal Hero seriously, and then the antiheroes will become a cliche of their own and we'll see a Reconstruction of the Ideal Hero. For example, The Modern Age of Comic Books has generally reclaimed a lot of the idealism of the Silver Age as a reaction to the Dark Age.
  • Joisey: The stereotypical view of New Jersey was never completely true or an exaggeration, as pretty much anybody who is actually from or has actually been to New Jersey will tell you. This trope was used with less and less frequency, until something horrific happened, causing the trope to rise from the dead.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: This one's been cycling for a long, long time. It started with straight usage in the Chivalric Romance genre, then was parodied to death by Don Quixote and successors, then returned to favor with Disney and other creators, and has since been deconstructed and bashed so hard that it's difficult to find straight examples, particularly as a lead character.
  • Little Professor Dialogue pops up from time to time, usually subverting more "realistic" kids' dialogue. While Dennis The Menace usually sounded like a child, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang were pretty loquacious in their conversation, though that was usually played as a joke. Then came Calvin and Hobbes, taking children back to talking like children, though with the years that had grown to include Toilet Humor and Bad Butt tendencies. On TV, meanwhile, Lisa Simpson was as verbose as a grown-up, while Bobby Hill went back to basics. Then came Stewie Griffin (who talked AND acted like a mad scientist) followed by the kids in Bob's Burgers, who sound a bit more realistic.
  • Love Interests: Cycles between Proper Lady and Well, Excuse Me, Princess! and every degree in between; characters are Colour Coded Characters, as they cycle respectively between blonde and red-haired or brunette.
  • Male "standards" change according to the zeitgeist of the era, from chivalrous in the Middle Ages to curious in the Renaissance to logical in the Enlightenment era to passionate in the Romantic era to compassionate in the Victorian era. The 1920s had the "clueless dandy"; the Great Depression and WWII brought street-smart, hard-boiled characters; the post-war era became linked to fatherly, athletic types as much as the 60s were marked by impossibly stylish, intellectual playboys (who might as well be spies); the 70s had hunk-ish guys who either wanted to sleep with every woman possible or tried to take the law on his own hands; the 80s brought elegant, corporate-minded men or heroic bodybuilders while the 90s and 00s had both scruffy idlers and effete metrosexuals and the 2010s have been marked by lumbersexuals or naive intellectuals.
  • Minorly Mentioned Myths and Monsters: Basically the same thing as Seldom-Seen Species but applied to folklore.
  • Monochrome Casting: All-white or all-black casts were the norm in popular media until the end of segregation in the 1960s, when racially-integrated ensembles became common, especially throughout the 1970s. However, by the 1980s the pendulum swung back towards this trope, becoming prevalent until the very late 1990s when multicultural casts became the cool thing to do in Hollywood during the 2000s. The 2010s however have pretty much preferred to return to the trope.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: Popular during banking crises and economic downturns.
  • The portrayal of Nerds in media has wildly varied. Harold Lloyd pretty much popularized clueless, bespectacled heroes in The Freshman, Girl Shy, and Grandma's Boy. However, intellectual characters became replaced by smart-aleck characters in the 30s and by The '50s "egghead" was the insult of choice, pretty much bolstered by Red Scare era hostility towards intellectualism. The '60s saw socially-awkward, knowledgeable characters like Peter Parker and Spock being portrayed in a positive light. It then went downhill again in The '70s, with The '90s and the early 2000s being the lowest point, with characters like Steve Urkel and the popularity of teen sex comedies reinforcing stereotypes. By the late 2000s, indie content creators and the rise of The Internet led to a higher awareness of hobbies seen as "nerdy". However, it was the popularity of The Big Bang Theory and the surge of the hipster subculture the factors that made nerds a mainstay of the 2010s-era culture.
  • Nerd Glasses: Depends on whether horn-rimmed glasses are in fashion or not.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Cycles according to world events.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: In older times, pale skin was a sign of wealth and therefore highly attractive: most working-class people worked outside for long periods, developing tans, while affluent noble-types stayed indoors, staying fair-skinned. Then, as beach culture became more popular, pale was out and made way for the Dark-Skinned Blond during the 60's, 70's, and later the 90's and the '00s. But then the increasing awareness of skin cancer made tanning less popular — and the bottled "fake tans" that came out as a result looked, well, fake and made people who used them seem oblivious and trashy. Combine that with the rise of the Goth subculture and its embrace of the '50s pin-up girl image, and pale and dark-haired came back in fashion.
  • Real Is Brown: In the First-Person Shooter genre, there seems to be a constant cycle between grim and gritty realistic-looking tactical military shooters, and colorful cartoonish ones, which swings back and forth based on whichever the last big successful release was... eg. from cartoonish games early on when that was all the hardware could handle, to realistic ones as they became possible, to cartoonish ones following Team Fortress 2, to realistic ones following the success of the later Call of Duty entries, back towards a more cartoonish look following the success of Overwatch and Splatoon.
  • Real Women Have Curves: The attitude that a woman is more "realistic" if she's heavier than the norm. Thanks to shifting ideals about body type (along with some people claiming that it encourages obesity), this one keeps coming and going.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: The mother of all Cyclic Tropes — at least, according to some. It is said that there are two trends in culture, coming in waves and supplanting one another: the orderly Apollonian, and chaotic Dionysian. Apollonian Enlightenment is followed by Dionysian Romanticism, which is followed by Apollonian Positivism or Realism... and so on.
  • Seldom-Seen Species: Some species are more seldom seen in the media of some cultures and in some time periods than others.
  • Sex Is Cool: Appeared in the 1970s at the peak of the "sexual revolution" to be annihilated by the following decade with the AIDS scare. Open sexuality returned with a bang (no pun intended) in the 90s and 00s, but overuse of the trope has led to another bust during the 2010s.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Interestingly, this tends to parallel the political and economic climate of the society generating the works that feature the trope. Also related to whatever seems rare and different from the norm, e.g., when any given superhero has a 90% chance of being a troubled, brooding '90s Anti-Hero, Capes start becoming fascinating to the point of being edgy until they become dirt common then, it switches back, and vice versa.
  • Smoking Is Cool: In the 1920s, when most Americans wouldn't even drink, smoking a cigarette was thought to be rebellious - even countercultural - both by those who engaged in it and those who disapproved of it. As a result, it became "cool" to smoke precisely because it offended so many people. A generation later, in the 1940s, smoking had become so commonplace that it was hard to believe it had ever been frowned upon — but the mass media still insisted on smoking being cool. Then, a generation after that, in the 1960s, it was confirmed that tobacco use led to lung cancer, so smoking became socially unacceptable again. In the 1980s cigarettes became regarded as classy once again. And while this trend lost favor in the 1990s, smoking cigars enjoyed a revival of popularity among young hipsters, perhaps as a thumb to the eye of Political Correctness Gone Mad. Since then, smoking, in general, has gradually regained popularity in media devoted to adults, as a way to indicate that a character is rebellious or carefree — although it's still viewed with suspicion and disdain in the larger society, although the emergence of electric cigarettes and the like have made smoking somewhat more acceptable.
  • Space Opera: The Sci-Fi genre cycles between favoring tongue in cheek seriocomic space adventures or more cerebral, serious, thought provoking stories. It really depends on which one the public tires of at the time. Serious science fiction of the Star Trek style with social commentary and realistic science was popular until Star Wars came along. After the conclusion of that trilogy (along with its imitators), more introspective scifi became popular again, especially with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now SFX action romps are popular again now that technology has caught up. It is observed that whenever Star Trek style sci-fi is in vogue, it invariably goes unnoticed by the mainstream but neverthless enjoys a cult following among serious SF fans.
  • Spy Fiction: The world's current political system determines whether or not Tuxedo and Martini James Bond-ish films or Stale Beer Post Nine Eleven Terrorism Movies are popular among the audience.
  • Straw Character: At the turn of the 20th century they were either man-hating "suffragettes" or "temperance"-supporting killjoys; in WWI they were pacifists or profiteers; in the 20s, gangsters or "movie men"; in the 30s, "New Dealers" or industrialists; in the 40s, Nazi spies or isolationists; in the 50s, "commies" or "red-hunters"; in the 60s, hippies or segregationists; in the 70s, "libs" or "cons"; in the 80s, "russ-lovers" or "star warriors"note ; in the 90s, "tree-huggers" or "polluters"; in the 2000s, "surrender monkeys" or "arab-killers". As of the 2010s, the most prominent straw-men of the day seem to be feminists and the "alt-right".
  • Super Robot Genre: The entire genre goes through cycles of deconstruction and reconstruction. To give a very simplified version, starting with the Trope Maker: Mazinger Zdeconstruction—> Mobile Suit Gundamreconstruction—> GunBusterdeconstruction—> Neon Genesis Evangelionreconstruction—> GaoGaiGar
  • Sword & Sandal: Hollywood's on-off relationship with them.
  • Token Minority: It is often this or a Token White.
  • Unfortunate Ingredients: In the '80s and '90s, sugar was the greatest evil. (American soft-drink companies were actually ahead of the game, having switched from cane sugar to corn syrup in the late '70s.) Now, many ads tout the presence of "real sugar" in their goods because nobody trusts artificial sweeteners or high-fructose corn syrup (both are made up of glucose, i.e. blood sugar, and fructose, i.e. fruit sugar, instead, but while sucrose, i.e. table sugar is 50% glucose 50% fructose, corn syrup varies. Typically, the HFCS in soft drinks is HFCS 42, or 42% fructose, while many other foods use HFCS 55 (55% fructose, which makes it sweeter). HFCS 42 and 55 comprise most of the HFCS on the market, but some products use HFCS 90. Of course, too much sugar of any stripe is a problem.
  • The Vamp: Cycles between blonde and brunette.
  • Western Terrorists: The ethnicity of terrorist cycles according to world events and frequency of use.
  • Comics' art style; early Newspaper Comics were a unique selling point (hence "features") and appeared only on Sundays with large full-panel color. The addition of daily B&W comics along with an ever-shrinking panel size meant that the luxuriant canvas enjoyed by the first generation of modern comics artists would only again be available in the internet era. This led to fanciful detail being first jettisoned in favor of a pared-down Slice of Life style and then to the rediscovery of fanciful detail. Compare the art styles of Winsor McCay, early Charles Schulz, and Zack Morrison, and remember that while Schulz' style was in keeping with midcentury modernist trends in design, architecture and "serious" art, he was very much making a virtue of necessity.

Alternative Title(s): Cyclical Trope


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