6 Mighty Cartoon Character Tropes (That Just Won’t Quit)
It’s fair to say that people have a tendency to remember things a little wonky when looking at the past with Childhood Goggles strapped to their peepers. With the nostalgia plane still soaring high in Internetville, and people talking about how everything “back then” was so much better/everything now is trash, sometimes it’s easy to remember things as better than they were.
But it got me thinking about those old cartoons of yesteryear. I examined certain tropes, roles, and stereotypes in cartoons that were super popular in the old stuff. I paired it up today’s cartoons…and whoops, surprise-
6) Cartoon Twins Still Run Rampant
Twins, be it identical or fraternal, are truly an amazing phenomenon of nature. The fact that biology has the capacity to split and clone itself or allow two eggs to drop so siblings can gestate together is nothing short of remarkable. With assisted fertility options, there’s no doubting the statistics that multiples are on the rise. And while representation for all in media is imperative…what’s with all the animated twins?
Right out of the cartoon gate, The Wonder Twins pretty much spanked it early on. Twins and Superheroes? Competition be gone- these two from the Super Friends show (which ran from 1973-1986) were probably the leaders in the twin-trend, long before the Luke/Leia twin story line was shoehorned into the second Star Wars movie.
But not to be outdone, He-Man and She-Ra stepped up to the challenge, showing what magical transforming brother and sister twins can do with magic words and some righteous swords.
But then the 1980s/1990s happened, and with it…you got it. More twins. Scooter and Skeeter from Muppet Babies popped up, then Phil and Lil DeVille from Rugrats.
Lest we forget the extremely short-lived show The Cramp Twins.
Even in the Thomas and Friends universe there are THREE sets of twin trains!
Contemporary cartoon watchers can enjoy shows like Sofia the First, where Sofia’s stepsiblings James and Amber are “the royal twins”, plus there’s another set of twins, Peg and Meg, in Sofia’s “Buttercups” troupe.
And lastly, there’s a show on Nickelodeon called Shimmer and Shine, which is about two twin sisters who serve as Genies in Training to one unlucky girl.
So, what’s going on with all these sets of twins? They’re often victims of a “trope within a trope” storyline, where sibling rivalry is discussed, or the twins switch places and pretend to be each other for an episode. Otherwise, they behave like odd-couples with opposite personalities, but that’s something that can be accomplished without the characters partaking in manufactured twin-hijinks.
2) Every Duck in the Quacking Room
Have you ever sat down and really tried to count all the ducks hiding out there in the land of cartoons? After Disney nailed it with their short-tempered, anger ridden Donald Duck and Warner Bros. took lunacy to a new level with Daffy Duck, an explosion of ducks and duck related shows quacked into existence with a furious vengeance.
Count Duckula was an intriguing blend of duck and vampire, though he wouldn’t bite beast or man because he’s a vegetarian. Sure, the show is too old for the average viewer to remember certain episodes, but it was still quality. After that, we had Duck Tails, a slow-paced adventure show with an unforgettable theme song. Riding the duck train, we had Darkwing Duck (arguably one of the most underrated superhero shows in existence), Plucky Duck from Tiny Toon Adventures and the titular mess from the mid-90s Klasky-Csupo hardboiled-dick “adult cartoon” Duckman. Which actually featured another set of twins, Charles and Mambo.
You know, between Rugrats and Duckman, maybe twins were less a 90s thing and more of a Klasky-Csupo thing.
But these ducks aren’t ready to quit- between the recent Nickelodeon show Breadwinners, featuring two ducks that don’t even look like ducks, and Disney’s recently premiered Ducktails reboot (woo-woos and all), there doesn’t seem to be any signs of the duck trope slowing down. That being said, please (oh, please, please) don’t let Howard the Duck get a reboot.
Our nightmares can’t take it.
3) The Emotionally Damaged Dad
We all know about the most prevalent Dad-trope- the oafish moron. You can see him in characters like Fred Flintstone, Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and so on. But what about the emotionally twitchy dads? While not a complete mess, George Jetson was a great start to the emotionally riddled dad. More involved with his family than Fred Flintstone (hey, it was the future after all), torment was often written all over George’s face.
Fast-forwarding to the 1980s, cartoon viewers got to laugh at the emotional stress and torture of Dave Seville from Alvin and the Chipmunks.
And sadly, the winner of the troubled-dad award will forever go to pet-daddy Jon Arbuckle from Garfield and Friends.
But once Rugrats hit the scene in the early 90s, my 6-year-old eyes were pretty surprised by the train wreck personalities of the dads. Chaz Finster and Stu Pickles were barely functioning people, and negligent parents to the point where it’s amazing that the final episode of the series didn’t end with social services being called.
And while The Man in the Yellow Hat may have been a monkey thieving poacher in the original Curious George books, the 2006 feature film introduced us to Ted- a nervous, neurotic monkey-daddy who doesn’t know how to stop lying, stand up to people, or talk to women.
Enter the late 90s- do you remember Jake Morgendorffer, Daria’s dad from the MTV show Daria?
All of these characters were just a ramp-up to the emotionally broken dad of the future, which goes to Jerry from Rick and Morty. Jerry is so thoroughly messed up that “Don’t be a Jerry” is a piece of advice which has wormed into our modern lexicon.
4) The Faceless Adult / Absent Parent
History shows that it was probably Tom and Jerry that first introduced the idea of the Pair of Legs as a character. You know what that is- when adult legs jumped on tables to scream, or stand defiantly to scold the cat, or beat him with a broom. If the adults in the Peanuts cartoons weren’t “wah-wah” nonsense voices, there’s a good chance they would have been a set of legs too. When the need for a full character isn’t there, we only get glimpsed and pieces of them. It makes sense from an animal or kids’ perspective.
From there, the idea of faceless characters popped up constantly. Remember our favorite faceless villain Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget? Or how about Nannie in Muppet Babies? I remember as a kid, I was so stressed out by not seeing their faces that I used to have dreams about Nannie’s face. In fact, I have a Mandela Effect memory of seeing her face once and she had red hair.
Segueing into the 90s, we had the legs of “Mom and Dad” in Ren and Stimpy, who were pretty major as far as minor characters go. And do you remember Timmy Turner’s parents in the pilot episode of Fairly Odd Parents? They were just a set of legs too until it was clear that for that show, it was an ineffective trope- having his parent act more like the parents from Dexter’s Lab was a more efficient imitation for its needs. It seemed we’d segued away from the “Dr. Claw” trope when parents in cartoons started becoming core, silly characters in and of themselves.
5) The Anime Five (aka “The Science Team”)
I watched a lot of anime in the 90s and early 2000s, boarding obsession, I suppose. I’d seen a lot of tropey and reused premises over the course of my viewing, but never really gave it much thought. But one day, in 2004, I bought a book for my college freshman speech class called Anime Explosion by Patrick Drazen and within the first few pages of the book, this paragraph appeared and change my view of cartoon teams forever:
“[Among them was] Go Lions (Five Lions, 1981), renamed Voltron, which mixed two anime genres together to create an intriguing new hybrid. It started with the formula for the “science team” first established in the Gatchaman series and revived (with occasional minor variations) in dozens of other Japanese series. The team always consisted of: hero, woman, child, big beefy guy, lone wolf. The latter might seem odd, since loners aren’t usually part of a team, but such teams usually include a wild card to spice things up, since he’s capable of anything from criminal behavior to borderline psychosis.” –Anime Explosion, 2004
That simple paragraph made me stop in my tracks and reevaluate every single cartoon/anime team I’d ever been exposed to. Not only does it apply to groups of five (Like Sailor Moon, Power Ranger teams), but the liberties of the wild card apply it to American groups, like the Ninja Turtles. And proof that this formula not only works, but is alive and at work. Because yes, shows like Sailor Moon, Voltron, Power Rangers, and Ninja Turtles have all either been rebooted or are simply continuing.
6) Video Game Cartoons Are Still Predictably Bad
When my kids told me they wanted to watch a cartoon with Mario in it, my stomach dropped. Embarrassed and ashamed, I turned on Netflix and fired up the 1980s Super Mario Bros. Super Show. They watched it for five minutes, gave me the side-eyed glance, and asked to be emancipated. All right, it wasn’t that severe, but they didn’t want to watch it.
I remember sharing the same feelings when the show was new. This is Mario and it resembles nothing of the games! Where was the adventure, the familiar elements that made the Mario games so loveable?
The same thing happened to other shows in the 1980, a time in history where video game cartoons couldn’t stop giving their source material the middle-finger. We had the upsetting “Well excuuuuuuse me Princess” version of Link in the Legend of Zelda show, and the horrific mess of unrecognizable puke that was Captain N: The Game Master.
Move forward a few years to the 90s, and there were two Sonic the Hedgehog shows airing simultaneously, both produced by DIC, one sucking just a little more than the other (Spoiler: Adventures of Sonic sucked more.) And lest we forget the twitchy, early CG Donkey Kong Country cartoon that was embarrassingly unwatchable.
So, what happened? People anecdotally say that games were new, those cartoon writers were washed up sitcom writers from the 50s. They didn’t know any better! But we’re living in a today world! Surely, with people who grew up with video games now producing media, we should be able to finally get it right in the western market, right?