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Evolving Trope

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Tropes are based upon very well-founded principles of storytelling. But, as society changes, tropes may fall out of favor, either through association with something no longer considered acceptable, or from simple overuse and falling into a cliché. At that point, a subversion of the original may rise up to become the new standard, and the original will be slowly forgotten.

This is not a Cyclic Trope; the original trope probably isn't going to come back, for one reason or another.


  • Between the 1930s and the '60s, the U.S. government, in film, was portrayed as unequivocally good. The portrayal of corruption has become more and more common, though as Patriotic Fervor rises, it may lapse back for a time. The late Sixties and early Seventies saw liberal contempt for the U.S. government, but in late Seventies and The '80s it was conservatives who started to exhibit anti-government attitudes. There are currently antiestablishment factions on both ends of the spectrum (exemplified perfectly by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street), and they wax and wane in influence depending on the political alignment of whoever is in power at the time.
  • Men Are Tough and Women Are Delicate often swap or reverse the stereotypes associated. For instance, it was once believed that Men Are Better Than Women in every way, as well as the bastions of higher education and culture. Nowadays, the shift towards careers that need more "soft" skills has meant that women are stereotyped as being the wiser sex, that college is for girls, and men would rather do anything than be "cultured". Despite the reversal, however, the big idea is still that women are physically weak, shallow or over-sensitive while guys are tougher, pragmatic and level-headed.
  • Immigrants were seen up until the mid-20th century as shiftless lowlifes on their way to ruin any given national culture while creating unnecessary competition in the job market. Nowadays, many consider migrants to be not only enriching of the culture, but that they're also a vital economic asset rather than a liability or as competition.
  • In the same lines, diverse ethnic groups have been targeted in the U.S. throughout the years, often linked to migrant waves and wars: In the early 19th century, it was the Dutch and the Nordics, followed by the Germans during the middle of the century, Irishmen and Chinese during the late 19th century, Jews and Italians during the early 20th century, Japanese and Vietnamese between WWII and the Vietnam War, Latinos since the second half of the 20th century, Arabs/Muslims during the early years of the 21st century.
  • Portrayal of Germans in Film:
    • At first every German, from civilians to Gestapo, used to be monochromatically evil (this applied to World War I, as well), with the concept of the "Good German" appearing as the conflict went on. Nazi- and Imperial-era Germans in fiction didn't even need anti-Semitism, racism or just plain world domination as a justification to be evil; they did terrible deeds just for the hell of it.
    • As Communists emerged as enemies and West Germany an ally in the real world, Cold War-era WWII movies redefined it to just Nazis being evil, most civilians became either resistance or misguided Nazi sympathizers.
    • Further redefined in that Nazi-era German soldiers could be decent people and not just Faceless Goons; but most SS and Gestapo still have souls blacker than night. Alternately, German characters of the proper age ranges were sometimes refugees, as in BBC's Survivors and the first Captain America film, both characters facing unfair treatment by British and Americans respectively despite actually being the victims of the situation in question. This can be a regretful Aesop about how we treat immigrants, or about becoming just as bad as the intolerant societies we denounce, or about remembering that you don't know what people are going through in life based on their face and accent.
    • More recently, a German might be portrayed as depressive or have odd senses of humour. The main constant though has been Oktoberfest and other related Bavarian traditions as lederhosen are almost always funny. Through it all, also, the eccentric Germanic professor or doctor has remained a comedy staple, even though plenty of other countries - some of them nowhere near Germany - now churn out brilliant scientists.
    • The Nazi Hunter trope is transforming thanks to the passage of time, as anyone who served in World War II gets too long in the tooth to be anything other than a Nazi Grandpa. And the generation that would have been old enough to be movers and shakers in the Nazi party would now be centenarians. Finally, the end of the Cold War dramatically expanded the choice of stock villains. However, there are Neo-Nazi hunters in Real Life, who are dedicated to making life Hell for anyone they suspect of being a Neo-Nazi or sympathizer. However, such people have come under fire themselves for their rather liberal definition of "Nazi". It's a common joke that the supply of actual Nazis doesn't meet the demand for them.
  • Portrayal of scientists in popular media:
  • For decades, any kind of scandal would be the kiss of death for a celebrity. In the 1990s, the rise of celebrity culture and the decreasing power of Moral Guardians led celebs to actively seek scandals based around wild behaviour to gain popularity. Then during the 2010s, a wave of allegations of sexual abuse shattered the reputations of many celebrities and it became clear that there was a limit to what the public would put up with, and studios once again began adding "turpitude clauses"note  on their contracts to protect themselves from stars who went too far.
  • Since the 18th century, some dramatic works have been created around a disease that would bring inevitable death: Tuberculosis (also known as "consumption") was the "death sentence illness" of choice up until around 1945, when it was replaced by cancer, joined since the 1980s by AIDS/HIV.
  • Folk tales often portrayed wolves as evil, rapacious animals that preyed upon innocent livestock and humans. As the Industrial Age progressed, the wolves were no longer a threat, the people realized that wolves only kill to survive, and they're now portrayed as proud, majestic protectors of nature or just trying to feed their babies. The truth is somewhere in between (wolves aren't as saintly as they tend to be depicted these days, and they did kill livestock and, at least in Europe and Asia, the odd person). However, the negative associations of wolves are still prevalent in Asian cultures, especially in Chinese media.
    • The same goes for many other wild animals. Bears used to be considered so scary that people even avoided saying their namenote . The word they used to use in place of their name was "bear". The fact that that word has now become the animal's actual name, and that we use it without fear, is a good demonstration of how much the trope has evolved. While bears still tend to be portrayed as ferocious, it's often justified by them being a Mama Bear, and anyone trying to kill them is portrayed as the real villain. And in modern times, bears are often portrayed as the complete opposite of ferocious.
  • The Onion points out an example. African Americans were thought to be unable to compete at sports in before Jackie Robinson, now in the United States, it is assumed that African Americans are better at sports than others.
  • The Polish used to be the butt of many jokes ripping on their supposed lack of intelligence. However, once Polish-Americans settled in, they assimilated pretty well, even taking top-level positions in the US government - Zbigniew Brzezinski comes to mind. Recently, Polish-American and American Jews of Polish descent are often portrayed as smart - for instance Howard and Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory. This can result in Unfortunate Implications, since if you're of Polish descent and you just happen to be simple-minded, you'll get hell from everyone: bigots will mock you (and feel justified in doing so), and fellow Poles will despise you for making them look bad.
    • This is not so likely in any recent portrait of Polish people in Western Europe shows. Since the European internal borders were opened, West European countries have seen a massive influx of Polish people seeking simple labour for relatively high wages. Since often they speak reasonable but not that well mastered English and often lack higher education (since West needs more blue-collar jobs), they're again being mocked.
  • It used to be that cats were portrayed as evil in literature and society in Europe and later North America. For the most part they are portrayed more positively or neutrally now, unless you are a wildlife expert lamenting their predatory impact on native bird and animal species.
  • Many students of mythology will tell you that depictions of the gods and goddesses in human stories underwent a complex metamorphosis over time: from freakishly inhuman beings, to anthropomorphized monsters who were needlessly cruel to humans, to despicable caricatures illustrating various vices, to bumbling yet lovable clown-figures, and finally to heroic beings who protected mankind from destruction. Some anthropologists attribute this gradual shift in attitudes to a parallel shift in how the Greeks and other ancient peoples regarded authority, social mores, and the universe itself.
  • Computers were originally depicted as house-sized switchboards full of vacuum tubes. Later on, they began using transistors and sported reel-to-reel tapes spinning in the background. Still later, they used microchips, got much smaller, displayed their information on monitors and stored data on floppy disks. Right now, they're small enough to fit in a pocket and stay connected to the outside world. Who knows what's next?
    • There's a weird component to this, though: a savvy sci-fi producer will make their future supercomputer somewhere between the size of a washing machine and the size of a couple of refrigerators sitting next to each other, because that seems to be the sweet spot for how big supercomputers actually have been since at least the mid-1970s. Sure, you can put the computational power of a 1975 CRAY-1 in a smartphone now, but you can put many times that power in a refrigerator-sized cabinet ... and most supercomputing centers have the space for such a cabinet, so why not use it?
      • Also, with all the "computer farms" around nowadays, you can't say that some depictions of "modern" computers in some Sci-fi settings were not an excellent prediction.
  • Along the same lines, most visions of the future in fiction made until the early 90s would place heavy emphasis on aesthetics, often assuming that social mores would remain the same. As the 90s progressed however, the focus shifted towards efficiency instead of appearance, while society would be portrayed as either more progressive or more repressive than in the present.
  • Until The '90s, a few small tattoos were enough to make a Tattooed Crook. As small and medium-size tattoos went into mainstream fashion in the mid-90s, the bad guys have started taking their tattoos up a notch, with Knuckle Tattoos, facial tattoos and so on. Japan is an exception, as tattoos are still mainly worn by the Yakuza.
    • Similarly, a man wearing a piercing before 1990 would be outed as either a criminal or a homosexual (or a punk in the late 70s-80s).
  • For most of the 20th century, the portrayal of the mid-late century American dad was that of the family man who could do no wrong, or at least had a good answer, often under a nostalgic lens in contrast to more absent-minded parents. By the 2010s, however, more cynical views of that era in history and the past in general have led to far far less sympathetic depictions, and a typical post-WWII dad in fiction is now expected to be a bigoted wife-battering drunk with an unused G.I. bill, pretty much the last things you'd expect from someone like Ward Cleaver.
  • Cheating with the Milkman derived from an era where houses regularly had milk delivered. Later on, when this was no longer true, the trope evolved into Pizza Boy Special Delivery, which is based off of professions which do continue to make visits to customers' homes (besides food delivery, repairmen are also a common part of the joke).
  • Phlebotinum du Jour is a good example of a trope which constantly changes as Science Marches On and the public become more familiar with a given technology or theory — as soon as one technology is widely understood (or discredited), speculative fiction turns to another, newer, sort to explain whatever technology is needed for the plot.
  • At first a Porn Stash was a hidden cache of printed magazines. Then a hidden video/DVD collection. Then the contents of a computer's hard disk (and thumb drives, as they became more popular)note .
  • As My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic changed the public's perception of My Little Pony, the nature of My Little Phony would change with it. Whereas older examples of the trope would mock the franchise, more modern ones would depict it in a more positive light as an Affectionate Parody. Both examples sometimes poke fun at its older audience, but the former tends to lean in more maliciously while the latter (who often are part of said older audience) is much more affectionate.
  • In high school settings, from the late 1990s onwards it has become very rare for the most popular girl in school to be portrayed as a Brainless Beauty. Generally any Alpha Bitch or Lovable Alpha Bitch who does seem ditzy will be Obfuscating Stupidity or at worst a Genius Ditz. Surprisingly the revelation that the pretty, bubbly girl is actually brainy is still usually treated as a stunning reveal in universe. The idea that popular girls are dumb also faded away due to the rise of the Alpha Bitch as a standard Big Bad in such a setting (intelligent schemers are more intimidating as main antagonists) and to set them apart from their Spear Counterpart, the Jerk Jock (they rely on their physical strength to intimidate people, and because the Women Are Wiser, the Alpha Bitch will use psychological manipulation to intimidate people).
  • As Webcomics first began to appear as a medium, Two Gamers on a Couch became a good way for a strip centered around video game humor to frame its jokes. Thanks to Sturgeon's Law and overuse, it began to fall out of favor amongst web comic creators, but the concept of Two Gamers on a Couch survived through the world of Let's Play, with Two Best Friends Play and Game Grumps being among the most prominent examples.
  • Quite apart from Science Marches On, the narrative role of dinosaurs in films and television has changed over the years. Outside of comedy and cartoons (where friendly dinos can be found since Gertie's day), Reptiles Are Abhorrent was the overwhelming depiction for decades, with even non-predatory dinosaurs being shown as ugly, lumbering monsters. Jurassic Park seems to have been the gamechanger, where dinosaurs were as much a source of awe and delight as fear, and even the T-Rex coming across as a dangerous but majestic beast more than a mere killing and eating machine.
  • A Dog Ate My Homework is now so well-known as a I Need to Go Iron My Dog excuse for students who didn't do/bring in homework assignments, that most students wouldn't use it. That, and the fact that this is the age of computers and printers, making for the (much more plausible) excuses that a) "my computer crashed" or b) "my printer stopped working". (Using the two together would, however, be laying it on too thick.)
  • The Yuri Genre has broadened its scope in The New '10s. The pure romance story where two girls meet at a One-Gender School is showing its age, while lesbian relationships are becoming increasingly common romantic subplots in a number of genres. Cross Ange and Kill la Kill, among others, show multiple homosexual relationships among the main characters, but use very few of the standard tropes of the genre and are primarily action series. This is increasingly referred to as "background yuri."
  • Arcadia was once regarded as charming because it was settled by humans, with pastures and fields, as opposed to the Wild Wilderness. Now, in more urbanized times, it is regarded as natural and so a contrast to Vice City.
  • The usage of Kayfabe in Professional Wrestling has changed significantly over the years. Up until the late 1990s, kayfabe basically centered on "don't let fans know it's fake, because then they'll stop watching". Wrestlers used to stay in character when making public appearances, Heels and Faces had to travel separately, use separate locker rooms and couldn't be seen interacting in a friendly way. There were even a few recorded instances of wrestlers lying under oath in court to keep Kayfabe intact and shooting note  on outsiders who would doubt its legitimacy. After technology and common sense prevailed, the big secret became irrefutable and wrestling is openly acknowledged as staged entertainment once the curtain closes. Now Kayfabe refers to the Fourth Wall separating wrestling from the real world and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief required to enjoy it. And while the viewership of pro wrestling has in fact declined since wrestling stopped claiming to be realnote  it is still watched by a few million people worldwide.
  • Garlic Is Abhorrent has had this occur within the last century. For centuries, many cultures deemed garlic in itself disgusting (and it is probably where Vampires Hate Garlic came from). It has since become popular worldwide, so the revulsion now usually comes from the smell of garlic, not the taste.
  • Enfant Terrible is a trope that has evolved by being exaggerated and subverted from previous inceptions. Before both the characters known as Dennis the Menace were created, kids in popular media were usually portrayed as angels. As mild as the US Dennis's mischief was and while the UK Dennis was usually punished, both started playing Naughty Is Good straight. Later, when creating The Simpsons, Matt Groening created Bart Simpson as an answer to the US Dennis, in an attempt to show what a bratty kid would really be like. Bart himself then became tame, despite losing what sense of realism the character had, when compared to Eric Cartman.note  What'll come after Cartman, God only knows.
  • Dirty Old Monk has been evolving too, sadly. At first, men of the cloth were portrayed as completely saintly, so the trope itself was a subversion of the traditional Chaste Hero. As the influence of organized religion diminished, clergymen were relegated to harmless friendly vicars, with perverted priests being played either for black comedy or controversial drama. Of course, now that Pedophile Priest is the first thing many think of when a Catholic Church scandal is mentioned, a priest having sex with an adult woman is usually portrayed positively or at least neutrally. An example from a long-runner: In South Park, Father Maxi was a corrupt villain when the kids found him having sex with a woman in his confession box during "Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?". A decade or so later, he was a hero for attacking all the other priests, who were all pedophiles, during "Red Hot Catholic Love".
    • Also, while Catholic priests make an oath of celibacy, there is (usually) none of the sort in Protestant denominations, and married pastors are completely normal. For the longest time the notion of a married clergyman was extremely strange and bizarre especially for people who had lived most or all of their lives in a predominantly Catholic country, and this notion can be seen to large extents especially in older movies. As knowledge of other cultures has become widespread, the notion of a married Protestant pastor has become less and less of an oddity even in these countries.
    • Also worth noting is the fact that even within Catholicism, married clergy are still a thing. It happens either when a man is already married by the time he gets ordained, or a married clergyman from another denomination converts.
  • When Pokémon was new, Phonýmon parodies were typically used for Trend Aesops that dismissed the franchise as a bizarre and ultimately insipid fad. However, as Pokémon proved to be far more enduring than it was initially thought to be, most parodies nowadays come from its Popularity Polynomial-inducing Periphery Demographic, and are as such far more affectionate. The first type, however, briefly experienced a comeback in the latter half of The New '10s with the rise of Pokémon GO.
  • The definition of A True Hero is almost always defined by the era in which the story is being told. As stated on Overly Sarcastic Productions episode on "Anti Heroes", in times of extreme crises or social turmoil, any character that fights those problems without hesitation or compromise is considered a "Hero". But, after those problems have eased or been dealt with, the public conscience tends to look back at those issues with more nuance and thus previously "unheroic" traits become heroic themselves, and the villains/anti-heroes are the ones who refuse to let go of the old viewpoints.
  • The French Maid isn't quite on its way out, since the outfit itself continues to be heavily fetishized and is a popular Sexy Whatever Outfit of choice for risqué scenes. However, she's very unlikely to be actually French outside of period works or parodies embracing every other French stereotype like the French Jerk or Gay Paree. In American media in particular the French Maid often gets replaced by a Spicy Latina Maid, since much of the Ethnic Menial Labor in the U.S. is drawn from the countries to the south of it. The Japanese have long had their own localized version in the Meido.
  • The Minority Show Ghetto and the Queer Show Ghetto (concepts that were prominent from The '80s through The 2000s) haven't quite faded away, but are slowly being replaced by Watched It for the Representation in the latter half of The New '10s, thanks to increased awareness of intersectional oppression and the greater need for diversity in media.
  • During the 1990s and 2000s, the notion of big-name film actors engaging in Direct to Video and Made-for-TV films had a stigma as a low point in their careers, and such projects were often seen as a quick buck for these actors, largely due to the lower quality of Direct to Video movies when compared to theatrically-released films. However, the rise of streaming services in the 2010s such as Netflix and Amazon Prime greatly upended these sentiments, as original programming and films from these services (e.g., Stranger Things and Martin Scorsese's The Irishman on Netflix) would frequently have comparable budgets and quality to theatrically-released movies, and would often feature fairly recognizable but less in-demand actors such as Winona Ryder and David Harbour as part of the main cast, often making them relevant again in Hollywood. This evolution was further compounded not only by how the "Big Five" studios (Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, and Sony) established their own streaming services note  to compete with Netflix and release both original series and films with comparable budgets to cinematically-released films (and also nab big-name actors), but by the COVID-19 Pandemic in the 2020s causing many theaters to temporarily close. Such health and safety measures forced both the studios themselves and actors to reconsider these streaming services as a new source of revenue.
  • While Nintendo Hard games are still popular, the original flavor of this trope is largely a thing of the past: In the past, especially during the age of rental stores like Blockbuster, the reasons for this tropes was two-fold: One, to get you to buy the game, as video game companies do not make revenue from rentals since that rental copy counts as only one purchase. And two, to get the advertised hundreds of hours of action out of what is actually a very short and linear game from start to finish. This changed during the 90s and especially the 2000s, as the video game demographic widely from kids and young adults and other forms of revenue took hold. This however, had the consequence of an influx of video games (of varying levels of quality) with a casual demographic in mind; much to the chagrin of the hardcore gaming audience. Then came the advent of the Retraux video game boom and the birth of the Souls-like RPG. Both of which found niches among hardcore gamers who were disenchanted with the increasing casual focus in game design. Today, video games come many flavors, from incredibly easy and casual focus to insanely difficult and hardcore focus. Some of these even appealing to both.
  • The School Is for Losers trope has also evolved. Very few people today consider education itself to be a bad or unnecessary thing. What is considered a bad or unnecessary thing is the time and money cost for education. Student loan debt (at least in the United States and other English-speaking nations) is a major hot-button issue, since going into it is all but required unless the student or their family is wealthy enough to pay the tuition in full, or if said student spends a few years in the armed services. This, along with the fact that many jobs that just needed a high school diploma in the 1980s, never mind the 1950s, now require college degrees or even graduate degrees and possibly hours of unpaid internships or volunteer work, has lead to many young people concluding that higher education and good grades may not be worth the effort, or the financial risk. With many opting to go to trade schools or community college instead.
  • One can make the argument that the Tyrannical Town Tycoon trope is undergoing an evolution, in light of changing economic circumstances. Namely, this trope itself came into being during the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, as the local businesses (e.g., waterworks, real estate, etc.) that such tycoons owned were considered staples of small towns across the United States. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, such small businesses (and, by extension, the power and salience that facilitated the existence of the Tyrannical Town Tycoon in the first place) largely disappeared from the map due to the rise of MegaCorps (e.g., utility companies, retailers, etc.), who would be owned by more distant executives who may not even live in such small towns. In short, there is still the gist of "wealthy people exerting their control over the residents of small towns", it's simply evolving with the economy.
  • The Jive Turkey trope eventually got replaced with characters who speak similar but more realistic/modern African-American Vernacular English, or characters that speak in a form of slang that doesn't have the same racial baggage (such as Surfer Dude speech, Leet Lingo, or a Totally Radical approximation of what contemporary youth slang is like).
  • Pin-Pulling Teeth originally was Truth in Television when the first models of "pineapple" fragmentation grenades were introduced, and soldiers' accounts from both World Wars feature them doing exactly this in especially desperate situations. Concerns about safety pins being accidentally pulled after snagging on things like dense underbrush led to the pins being revised to require more force to pull, meaning trying this with a contemporary 21st-century hand grenade is an easy way to break a tooth.