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Menace Decay

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Bart: I'm a pretty bad kid.
Cartman: Really? What's the worst thing you've ever done?
Bart: I stole the head off a statue once.
Cartman: Wow, that's pretty hardcore. Geez. That's like this one time, when I didn't like a kid, so I ground his parents up into chili and fed it to him.
South Park, "Cartoon Wars Part II"

Times change, and the standard for what constitutes a troublesome kid changes with them. A child character who was once considered to be quite the hellraiser can appear completely tame after a few years. Ironically, the longer the menacing kid is Not Allowed to Grow Up, the more likely he is to become his exact opposite, an impossibly idealized version of what the author thinks a child is supposed to be, due in part to authors' habit of modeling such characters after their own real-life children. The alternative is trying to preserve the character's reputation as a hellraiser through ever-escalating Flanderization. In either case, it's not going to resemble the behavior of an actual child, because, of course, Most Writers Are Adults.

See also: Values Dissonance, Motive Decay, Villain Decay, Rule-Abiding Rebel, Fair for Its Day, "Seinfeld" Is Unfunny. Often occurs when the child is Not Allowed to Grow Up.


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     Comic Strips  

  • Some fans consider the British Dennis the Menace's reboot in 2009 when the CBBC TV series turned the character from a genuine menace into just an ordinary kid. Inversely, Dennis's rival Walter the Softy became more of a Jerkass over the years, making him less sympathetic and more somebody you want to see Dennis humiliate. This change was implemented to avoid accusations that the comic was endorsing homophobic bullying by making Walter more cunning and less of an effeminate "softy" who likes ballet and playing with teddy bears, thus making him more of a match for Dennis.
  • The Trope Namer is the American Dennis The Menace, who has gone from being a genuine terror to being a perpetrator of minor, almost exclusively-unseen mischief. Consequently, Mr. Wilson's grudge against him has gone from sympathetic to downright petty, as the only thing Dennis ever does to him anymore is barge into the Wilsons' house from time to time and ask Mrs. Wilson for cookies.
    • Modern-day Dennis has occasionally gone even further into the realm of Family Circus-esque Glurge, as seen in panels like this. In an ironic twist, in that particular panel it is now this very thing that annoys Mr. Wilson so much.
    • This trend and its causes are further discussed here.
    • Observation of this phenomenon is also a running gag in the comic-commentary blog The Comics Curmudgeon. But even then, Josh, the creator of the blog, realizing that Dennis is no longer menacing, he looks outside of the box, and discovers ways that Dennis is passively-aggressively menacing through psychological means.
    • Ironically, this is both a case of times changing and the writing changing. Early Dennis might still be considered a menace by today's standards. One strip from The '50s had Dennis' dad mad at him for cutting a length of hose. Dennis said that he was playing Cops and Robbers and needed something for the interrogation.
    • It should be added that in some countries, the "Menace" part of the comics' name is omitted because the rhyme doesn't translate. The absence of a particularly "menacing" behaviour is less problematic when you're known merely as Dennis.
  • This occurred with Bil Keane's The Family Circus. As the title suggests, the kids (who were based on his own) were originally written as wild and hard to control. These days, they don't do much more than act cute.
  • Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes is lazy, selfish, impulsive and belligerent to the end, but by the time of the last strips (the ones published in "There's Treasure Everywhere" and "It's a Magical World"), he's significantly less likely to intentionally cause wanton property destruction or push his parents' buttons than he was at the beginning. He's so dialed down at this point that the last story with his babysitter Rosalyn actually ends happily for him.
  • An anthology of famous Scottish newspaper comic Oor Wullie actually lampshaded this when they reprinted the first strip, which featured the young Scots protagonist complaining he was bored and then going out and committing several acts of serious vandalism, including at least one that actually put people's lives in danger. This also counts as Early-Installment Weirdness, as apparently the writers realised this wasn't really endearing Wullie to contemporary audiences either and his subsequent characterisation was more "mischievous kid" than "future Serial Killer".

     Comic Book 

  • Monica's Gang: Jimmy Five used to be an absolutely terrible kid during the 60's to the 80's, making sexist remarks towards Monica, playing with firecrackers, consant drawing crude charicatures on neighborhood walls, chasing people (and dogs) with two-by-fours, pulling pranks that could be considered assault and even walking his baby sister with a dog leash. Even his motives for constant "foolproof" plans against Monica was to prove the "superiority of men over women". Nowadays, the worst he has ever done is being snarky, and his motives against Monica are a bit more justififable: he doesn't want someone who constantly uses aggression to get their way.
    • Monica herself could also qualify. She was characterized as a quarrelsome child that was always angry and would beat up anyone (except her own parents, presumably) for very petty reasons, including her best friend Maggy. After there was a petition so she wouldn't be so aggressive all the time, she was eventually retooled from Tomboy with a Girly Streak to a Girly Girl with a Tomboy Streak, and while she kept her petty reasoning for using violence remained, she was also given a slighty more heroic side by also using it on actual villains such as robbers. That being said, she was infamously very bossy during that time period and would often drag people (mostly Jimmy Five and Smudge) who were just minding their own businesses into her games and threaten them with a beating if they didn't comply, and never be punished by it. But even these traits were phased out by the 2010's, mostly because Moral Guardians were complaining that children would imitate her behavior (and even the child fans were starting to get sick of how she treated her friends).


  • Played with to some degree in the The Little Rascals movie, in which the kids are the same even though the setting is about 70 years later.
  • In Mary Poppins, the children are shown to be horribly out of control because they ran away from their nanny in the park. Then, they proceed to be perfect little angels with the sole exception of Michael losing his temper when a greedy banker snatches his money out of his hand. Compared to its Spiritual Successor Nanny McPhee, where the children tricked the nanny into believing that they had eaten the baby, the original kids practically had halos. The stage musical makes them more genuinely bratty, though they get better by the end.
  • Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, for the same reasons as the original story (mentioned below in Literature). The kids are still annoying, some of them even more than in the original book, but none of them really do anything to deserve getting stuck in a tube, or turning into a blueberry, or being sent down the garbage chute as a "bad egg." Unless you count "doing the thing that directly caused their fate despite having been warned not to", of course.

  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory suffers for this now. The kids are bratty, certainly, but by today's standards don't really deserve all the perils they're put in. This especially applies to Augustus, whose vice of overeating is unhealthy but doesn't harm anyone but himself, and Violet, whose "vice" of gum chewing is considered much less vulgar in modern culture than it was in Roald Dahl's generation. This trope is also probably why in more recent adaptations the kids are made much, much more intolerable. One can argue that they never really deserve what they get, but it's a classic Roald Dahl over-the-top parody of morality tales — and it all comes from cause and effect, in the same way jumping into a lion's cage will get you mauled! On the other hand, Veruca Salt has managed to remain exactly as terrible now as she was then.
  • By 1960 standards, Scout, narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird was a classic tomboy. Read the book from a modern point of view, and you can only tell she's not supposed to be a feminine girl because people keep saying so.
  • A reader can see this in between the generations in the two different Petaybee trilogies — Murel and Ronan get into far more mischief than any of the "troublemakers" in the first series.
  • Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were controversial heroes in their day, probably because Mark Twain wrote the former book with an adult audience in mind, only marketing it as a children's book at the advice of his publisher, and the book is thus realistic about kid behavior with no attempt made to set good examples for a young reader. By modern standards Tom comes off as a wholesomely rugged All American Boy (how many parents would love to have their kids cut class to go fishing?), while guttersnipe town delinquent Huck Finn is downright heroic in the way he learns to challenge the racism he's been indoctrinated into by society and see the humanity of his friend Jim.

    Live-Action Television 
  • Gilmore Girls suffers from this within the series run, weirdly enough. Jess is introduced as a Troubled, but Cute bad boy with a Dark and Troubled Past, shipped to Luke because his behavior was out of control back in New York City. Lorelai frets he'll be a bad influence on Rory when the two strike up a friendship and then a romantic relationship. Despite this, the only thing we see of his bad boy behavior is smoking, skipping school, and pulling pranks, in addition to having a general disdain for authority. He leaves in season 3. Not two seasons later, Rory herself drops out of Yale and is arrested after stealing a yacht in an impulsive reaction to dropping out of college. She narrowly manages to avoid being charged with a felony, and still ends up doing community service. To say nothing of her boyfriend Logan, who drinks and parties all the time instead of studying, who insists he can't be in a relationship (an initially is in a "no strings" one with Rory), and engages in activities that could actually kill him.

     Video Games  

  • In the 1990's, the Interactive Movie Night Trap was actually debated in the U.S. Congress, most infamously by Senator Joseph Lieberman, for its "shameful", "sick", and "disgusting" depictions of "extreme sexual violence" against women (translation: teenagers in pajamas giving campy B-movie performances as they're chased around a house by vacuum-cleaner-wielding vampires wearing pantyhose on their heads). The level of "mature" "violence" in a game "for children" shocked the nation and the controversy around the game was directly responsible for the creation of the ESRB rating standards; Nintendo of America's then-president Howard Phillips went as far as to affirm that the game would never appear on their hardware. Almost 30 years later, in 2017, Night Trap was ported to the PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch... and rated "T" for Teen by the ESRB.
  • When Sonic the Hedgehog was introduced, he was intended to be a cool 1990s-era character with an attitude. Though not as Totally Radical as his western portrayals, his original Japanese image was also that of a sassy and badbutt character that was meant to contrast with his rival mascot Mario. Over the 1990s, the emphasis on Sonic being a Mascot with Attitude decreased, which is why he was given a "cool" new redesign for Sonic Adventure. Looking at Sonic's Classic design, many fans don't even think of him as cool. He's soft and cute like Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, with his Modern design being seen as the "cool" one. It doesn't help that most of his 2010s portrayals depict Classic Sonic as Sonic's youthful younger portrayal (despite the fact Classic Sonic was a 15-18 year old in his heyday). Even the more modern Sonic design tends to be seen as relatively straight-edge, with his only real sign of "attitude" being that he sometimes heckles Eggman; the mere fact that he himself gained a darker, edgier counterpart meant to appeal to teenagers in Shadow shows just how much Sonic's edge had vanished over the years.

     Visual Novels  
  • Inverted with Dennis in Double Homework. He progresses from a nerd who tries to get girls with crude pickup artistry to a blackmailing, criminal pervert.

     Western Animation  

  • The Simpsons: Bart Simpson was a genuine target of moral panic in the early '90s over his bad attitude, his big mouth, and his lack of concern for school, with many parents and Moral Guardians fearing that he was a bad role model for children. His portrayal in those early episodes can make him seem like a Rule-Abiding Rebel even by the standards of ten years later, never mind today, especially with many of his catchphrases from that time having entered the broader '90s lexicon. Of course, once "Bartmania" kicked in and he became a pop culture sensation, the writers proceeded to make him a perfect example of the flip side of this trope, making his Kick the Dog moments more frequent in order to keep his reputation as a hellraiser. He's not at Eric Cartman levels yet, but he's definitely pushing the envelope on the 'comedic' part of Comedic Sociopathy, whether he's burning down a summer camp or almost starting a war with Australia. It preserves his reputation, but at the cost of sympathy.
    • Lampshaded in an episode where they go to the beach and the local slacker townies make fun of his iconic skateboard and sling shot, outright comparing him to Dennis the Menace. Also lampshaded when he met Jay North, who played Dennis in the 1959 TV series. Bart wasn't impressed by "bad boy" antics such as hiding his dad's hat and trampling Mr. Wilson's flowerbed (that was a two-part episode).
    • Interestingly, in one interview, Matt Groening claims that his characterization of Bart as a genuine hell-raiser was a direct response to Groening's disappointment with watching Dennis the Menace as a kid because, by Groening's standards, Dennis wasn't menacing - merely slightly annoying. In other words, Bart was written as a reaction to Menace Decay and later became subject to it himself.
    • In one episode of South Park, Eric Cartman meets a Bart Simpson stand-in, and they compare their evil deeds. Bart brags that he once sawed the head off a statue (but felt bad about it afterward.) Cartman, on the other hand, killed Scott Tenorman's parents, ground them into chili, and fed them to him. This is likely a response to a bit on The Simpsons where Bart compares his deeds to Dennis the Menace with similar results. In one episode, Bart called himself "this century's Dennis the Menace." And the episode aired in the 20th century.
    • The crossover episode with Family Guy also heavily lampshades this trope, although it's not entirely devoid of affection for Bart at the same time. Stewie finds Bart's idea of mischief and pranking to be whimsical, charming and endearing, but his own efforts at being a hellion scare and appall the older Simpsons boy. When Stewie takes his turn at prank-phonecalling Moe, his idea of a "joke" — telling Moe that his sister is being raped and then hanging up on him — leaves Bart staring open-mouthed in shocked horror at him. Likewise, at the episode's end, when Stewie shows off how he captured, caged and tortured all of Bart's enemies to try and make Bart like him, Bart immediately sets them all free and declares he never wants to be Stewie's friend again, because Stewie is far too crazy and evil for him. Amazingly, this actually deeply hurts Stewie, who is shown in the episode's final shot emulating Bart's blackboard punishment gag whilst crying over being rejected by him.
  • Speaking of South Park and Eric Cartman, he is again what you get when you avert this trope. Aside from his Moral Event Horizon (the aforementioned bit with the ground-up parents), most of his actions are either Poke the Poodle or Politically Incorrect Villain moments, even moreso than Bart Simpson. But said Moral Event Horizon was so intense that no amount of Menace Decay will ever really redeem him.
  • In The Alvin Show, Alvin was the single biggest Troll Dave had ever fell victim to, with Simon and Theodore as either accomplices or neutral parties. In Alvin and the Chipmunks, Alvin largely turned to Zany Schemes behind Dave's back and rarely intentionally gave Dave a hard time. By the time of the movie, Alvin's mischief comes more out of naïvete than malevolence.
  • The title character of Madeline is a mild example. In the original 1988 special, she's a mischievous prankster, pretending to choke on her bread at dinner, scaring the other girls with a shadow puppet "monster" at night, and boasting that every night she fools them with a prank. Even the narrator highlights her naughtiness compared to her schoolmates, saying "Such good little girls in two straight lines/Except the smallest, Madeline." But this side of her mostly disappears in the other five specials and in the subsequent series and movies, leaving her as simply a Plucky Genki Girl and letting Pepito take over as the resident prankster.
  • Horrid Henry started out as a genuinely horrid kid, much like he was in the books. As the show went on, though, he became less of a brat and more of a scapegoat with Deadpan Snarker tendencies. To compensate, his younger brother Perfect Peter Took a Level in Jerkass.