Coming to terms with the trope

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Illustration by Grace Giordano

It’s likely you’ve heard or read the word trope recently, perhaps in the midst of some post-film discussion or while perusing movie reviews. It’s usually meant as a criticism and often serves to disparage a film’s originality. Since ascending to movie-nerddom, I’ve encountered the word trope more and more, typically rolling my eyes at what I can’t help but perceive as a reductive, lazy criticism that fails to consider an individual work on its own terms.

My knee-jerk irritation is especially sharp when I hear trope used to describe a character. Doesn’t every character deserve to be looked at individually, just like all of us want in real life? Or perhaps a better and less dramatic way of putting this would be: Isn’t it more fun to look at characters as individuals? It has often seemed to me that the trope label is a massive killjoy, shutting down thoughts and feelings rather than encouraging them.

Recently, however, I’ve been thinking of tropism and the conversations surrounding it as tools of a larger, healthy societal dialogue. My hope is that we can have the best of both worlds—tapping into the word’s potential to point out familiarity and make sure we don’t get stuck in tired character paradigms, while at the same time allowing each film and character to exist as a singular entity.

Though the term trope has been more prevalent in the past couple decades, it was used as far back as the 1800s (albeit much more rarely), with a steady uptick starting around 1980. Professor Josh Epstein speculates that the increase might be connected to the influence of deconstructionist Paul de Man, whose work frequently examined tropism (particularly his 1983 article “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric”).

Epstein suspects the rise of de Man’s work, in tandem with the growing number of trope-related studies occurring at major universities around the same time, may be the root of the word’s surge in popularity. One way or another, it has become a regular part of the cultural lexicon, and we all have to deal with it.

Perhaps the most widely known and cited character trope in recent cinema is “manic pixie dream girl,” a term invented by columnist Nathan Rabin to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film Elizabethtown. This particular trope has been used in reviews and articles ever since, deployed both comically and as earnest critique. In 2014, Rabin wrote an article apologizing for coining the phrase. “By giving an idea a name and a fuzzy definition, you apparently also give it power,” he wrote. “And in my case, that power spun out of control.”

“Fuzzy definition” may be at the crux of tropism’s danger: It can lead to a generalized bracketing incapable of providing sharp, specific insight. “Clearly labels and definitions are inherently reductive,” Rabin writes. “And if you are a critic, labels and names and definitions are a necessary evil.”

Since we do sometimes need these reference points in conversation, how can we use them in a way that stimulates thought and preserves art’s wonder? Perhaps the mere act of staying open to other views can go a long way, allowing us to recognize the validity of other interpretations while holding and building onto our own. I was recently discussing Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, another character frequently labeled as a manic pixie dream girl. My friend insisted that while I was choosing to look at the character in isolation, she couldn’t be divorced from the larger conversation. It struck me that discerning larger patterns when discussing a character’s existence on the world stage can be done without negating how they connect or don’t connect to you personally.

While I still do not claim to be a fan of the word trope or how it is used, I no longer want my reaction to it to involve an immediate turning away.

Perhaps more important than its manner of employment in conversation is the very fact that it appears in our conversations at all. I believe that the mind-expanding potential of participating in a conversation about art far outweighs the reductive potential of any one word.

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