Skip to main content

Ever notice the sound a galloping horse makes in films and television shows? According to Hollywood, horse hooves make a clickety-clack noise of coconuts being banged together. Anyone who's ever ridden a horse knows this isn't true, but yet it persists. Why? Audiences have become so accustomed to the sound effect when seeing a horse onscreen that it's expected, and when the clickety-clack isn't present it's even more jarring. In a way, reality becomes unrealistic. TV Tropes calls this type of thing "The Coconut Effect."

Almost every film and television show employs a certain amount of tried and true clichés, conventions, formulas and stereotypes to create a story. In a good film these type of things are usually forgiven, since the audience doesn't really notice them. However, in bad films they stand out like a sore thumb. Some clichés and stereotypes are in the "so bad it's good" category, and are often parodied and satirized. On the other end of the spectrum are the ones that can get very offensive by today's standards.

So, with that in mind, what are the worst clichés and conventions used by Hollywood?

For the better part of a a century, the export of American culture through movies, TV shows, music, etc., has been seen as both good business and good diplomacy. Our pop culture is appealing to many, and some of the ideas presented within it are deemed so "dangerous" the dictators of the world are afraid to expose their people to it. Our pop culture also has a way of assimilating, and being assimilated into others. Don't believe me? Ask Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald and Coca-Cola. However, if you're living overseas and all you had to go on about the United States was what you saw in movies and TV programs, the image might not be the most positive one. There have been news reports in the past that people come to think Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York City are violent hell-holes based on what they've seen in movies, as well as C.S.I. and Law and Order. Some years back, the State Department commissioned a report for their international visitors program. The summary claimed "people who watch U.S. television shows, attend Hollywood movies and listen to pop music can't help but believe that we are a nation in which we have sex with strangers regularly, where we wander the streets well armed and prepared to shoot our neighbors at any provocation, and where the lifestyle to which we aspire is one of rich, cocaine-snorting, decadent sybarites."

Although, false impressions can go both ways. Just like horse hooves and coconuts, domestic audiences can become accustomed to well-worn stereotypes. For years there's been criticism of Arab actors that seem to always end up being cast as terrorists, female characters with no agency and that are only defined by the men in their lives, and the "Magical Negro," which is usually a borderline Stepin Fetchit/Noble Savage type character who exists to pass along their wisdom to white people in need.

Cracked once pointed out that Africans are almost always depicted as uncivilized or warlords in films and television. For example, in Independence Day, after we blow up the aliens and everyone is celebrating, how are the different cultures of Earth depicted?
In the past, when I've written on this topic, it worked much better when I broke down the cliches by genre. So here are some of the most often used conventions in action films.

In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell pulled together similar themes and patterns in thousands of years of myth, legend and history to find similar patterns across different cultures for what he called "Monomyth" (or "The Hero's Journey"). According to Campbell, the journey begins when "a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." Arguably almost every story with heroic elements has one of the 17 Stages derived from Campbell's work.

In addition to Campbell's elements, they usually also have story features that make no damn sense if you think about it too hard.

  • Hitting someone on the head will knock them out for the required time in order to accomplish a task, no more, no less. This is usually employed when the story doesn't want to show the hero killing dozens of people to accomplish the mission. So you basically get the G.I. Joe rules of warfare.
  • The hero is exceptionally skilled yet misunderstood with inner angst, where the central situation at the heart of the plot allows a chance at redemption or revenge. The protagonist may be deeply flawed or have a tragic backstory. The bravery and victory of this kind of hero is accentuated, since not only does he/she choose to fight but they do so while carrying the 40 lb sack of their frailties on their back. This type of hero may be fighting a battle they're doomed to lose, but does so because maybe in defeat it helps the greater good, maybe some others will know a peace and paradise that he/she can't, or maybe they're doing it out of principle. Why does Sisyphus continue to push the rock up the hill? Because sometimes the struggle itself is enough to "fill a man's heart."
  • The hero could be divine, special or chosen. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literature, Gilgamesh is described as two-thirds god and one-third man. A common theme in a lot of stories is the hero is more than human, and thus this is the reason they can do what others can't. Both Perseus and Hercules are the sons of Zeus. In comic books, a similar situation exists. The hero is usually special for some reason or another. (e.g. mutant gene, radioactive spider bite, alien DNA, etc.) Often the hero is "chosen" by fate, prophecy, time, God, the universe, etc., as the only one who can make the quest, defeat the threat, and save the day. Harry Potter is prophesied to be "the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord." In Star Wars, it's implied both by Yoda and Darth Vader that only Luke and Leia have the power to either stop or sustain the Empire.
  • The revenge flick ... A father/brother/son/friend must avenge a death perpetrated by a gang of assholes. He must kill off the members one by one in increasingly sadistic ways. All members of the gang will be easy to kill, except for the gang leader, which requires a long battle that eventually devolves into a slow-motion fist fight.
  • The hero will have no backup when dealing with the final confrontation, since reinforcements are always "10 minutes out," and show up after the main villain has been dead for a few seconds.
  • The other cops/soldiers he or she works with usually have some sort of issue that they're holding against the hero. The hero is usually distrusted among other members of his/her profession.
  • During the second act, when there is a chance of catching the villains, the other members of the hero's unit can not set up a perimeter to literally save their lives.
  • The main character will have one ally that has his/her back, and would follow the hero into hell if that's what it requires. This ally can have skills, which are good but not quite as good as the hero. However, the ally might be useless, and only exist within the film as the emotional bait used by the villain. The ally could also be the film's love interest.
"Once upon a time, there were three little girls who went to the Police Academy; and they were each assigned very hazardous duties. But I took them away from all that, and now they work for me. My name is Charlie."
  • The female lead(s) can go one of two ways. She will be a tough character that could kick almost any man's ass, who has somehow decided to fight criminals in the tightest, most form-fitting clothes possible (with cleavage thrown in for good measure), or she will be totally helpless.
  • No matter how much good the hero has done, no matter how many lives he/she may have saved—at the first instance of trouble, the powers that be will disregard all of the hero's advice and pursue the most dumbass policy possible. While the hero might have his friends and be loved by the helpless he or she helps, a common trope is the hero is misunderstood, taken for granted, or outright hated by a large chunk of the public.
  • If there are more than two leads in said action film, the two characters will be from different cultural backgrounds. The "buddy cop" action film allows for a message of diversity, while also kicking criminal ass.
  • A different variant of this are the action films that use the Trading Places formula. A white cop that has to go into a minority community to find his man, or an inner city black cop that has to go into the heart of blue blood, 1% country to find his man.
  • After doing a number of standard action films, the action film star is required to do an action film where he must act with children, and have an "oh so cute" moment before kicking criminal ass.
  • Criminals can not hit a damn thing with their guns, except within the last 15 minutes of the film, where they might wound the hero in order to make his/her victory somewhat more heroic.
  • At some point in the second act, all hope will seemingly be lost, or someone important to the lead character will be horribly hurt/killed. The action hero must show his displeasure by going nuts, destroying his office or screaming out loud for a prolonged period. A good example of this is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) gets mad at the sky and screams at it about three times in the movie.
  • Unlike real drug dealers/organized criminals who value anonymity, movie criminals like to advertise their profession. In the Fast and Furious series, a Mexican drug cartel shuts down an entire Los Angeles city street for a block party/driver tryouts. Now it's been a while since I've run a drug cartel, but usually you don't want the fast and flashy. You want the quiet and unnoticed.

Movies and television shows are not really meant to reflect reality. They can comment on reality. They can tell a story based on reality. But if people really wanted reality as entertainment, they would look out a window instead of going to a theater or buying a TV. So when telling a story, certain liberties have to be taken.

A lot of times when watching a film, I wonder which profession gets the most pissed watching film depictions of their trade? Real doctors watching Hollywood medicine? Real lawyers watching Hollywood legal proceedings? Or maybe real scientists watching Hollywood physics?

Dr. Cristina Yang is a cardiothoracic surgeon. So why the hell is she shocking a flatline?
  • When a person's heart goes into Asystole (flatline), the correct procedure is NOT to reach for paddles and start juicing their heart as they do in many, many movies and TV shows. In fact it will make things worse. Usually the proper thing to do is CPR, vasopressin, epinephrine, atropine, etc. The public's perception of how CPR is performed and how effective it is may be a bit skewed. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine some years back found that 75 percent of fictional patients in movies, TV, etc., enjoyed immediate recovery from CPR, while the actual rate of meaningful survival is typically well below 30 percent. CPR alone has only a 2 percent chance of reviving someone with no pulse. This is true because CPR is NOT a lifesaving procedure that will just "bring someone out of it." It is a life-prolonging procedure that buys time until a doctor can treat the underlying problem. Real CPR is different from it's Hollywood equivalent in that it is not clean. Before "mouth to mouth" was taken out of the guidelines, a patient vomiting into the rescuer or any oral disease vector could be transmitted this way. "Mouth to Mouth" was a favorite of Hollywood in a lot of old films, since it mimics the fairy tale idea of "saving" someone with a kiss, and it could also be played for laughs when someone didn't want to to do it on the "ugly" character. CPR is not pretty either, since when done right you might likely break a person's ribs while doing it. In addition to the stats above, only about six percent of those who are stricken with cardiac arrest outside a hospital survive. People who quickly get CPR while awaiting medical treatment have their chance of surviving double or triple, but the odds are still long.
  • Most legal thrillers completely botch criminal procedure and just a fundamental understanding of constitutional law. Testimony and evidence are allowed that would never be permitted at a real trial. A good example of this is the Ashley Judd film Double Jeopardy. A first-year law student could tell you the double jeopardy rule doesn't work the way it's portrayed in the film. Furthermore, judges are not really that tolerant of courtroom antics from attorneys, the insanity defense rarely works and the Perry Mason/Matlock method is a rarity. Most major felonies never make it to trial, and result in plea bargains. So for those cases that do make it to trial, there's usually a lengthy pretrial discovery process, where a stunning level of incompetence or corruption must have happened for a trial attorney to only piece it all together on the fly and realize he's questioning a witness who's the real killer. Of course, if all else fails, there's always the Chewbacca Defense.
  • If Hollywood lawyers botch Legal 101, Hollywood scientists usually maul fundamental tenets of science. Any story is not constrained by the laws of physics, but operate under the laws of physics as imagined in the filmmaker's head. Sometimes the two are very close, but sometimes they can deviate greatly. One infamous example of this is The Core, where a group of scientists create a craft that could never be built, to do things it can't possibly do, so it can go to a place it can't possibly go, to take care of a problem that would have probably resulted in the instant destruction of everything on Earth if it really happened.
  • The abilities of computers, computer hackers, and anything related to a computer are greatly exaggerated or just plain wrong in most films. Hackers, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie, is an odd relic of the 90s, where it imagines computer hackers as being a cross between Best Buy's Geek Squad and New York City club kids. "Hack The Planet!"
  • Government agents in the movies are either corrupt, inept, or part of a global conspiracy to take over the world. The main character might be the one "good" government worker fighting the system. If the lead character is a child fighting the system, government workers will inevitably show up to make his/her life a living hell. Child social workers can never see true love, and will invariably rip kids away from loving parents. If an alien lands to say hello to humanity, the government will try to kill it, experiment on it, or fuck up the alien's plan to help humanity. And if a kid is trying to help an alien get home or save the world, the government will try to fuck that up too.
  • Why do all fictional, ancient cultures speak with accents of British English? Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings are not set in Europe. So there's no reason why the characters should speak like Europeans or they're from the British Isles. But in any setting with castles, knights, swords and dragons, the characters will speak like they're from Yorkshire. It seems to be a default rule of fantasy storytelling that every depiction of ancient royalty must be analogous to the Kingdom of Great Britain and its precursors. This means that seeing people of color in a fantasy setting is usually not the norm. And strangely this trope also applies to depictions of real, ancient cultures too. Any movie or TV show set in ancient Rome or Greece usually has Brits in white togas.
"Grandmother, what big teeth you have!"
"All the better to eat you with, my dear!"
One of the best genres that has a long ingrained set of conventions and cliches is horror movies. In horror movies bad things happen to the characters if they break certain rules, with a lot of them being moralistic rules that when crossed "allow" the characters to die. Stephen King once presented the argument that most horror stories are fundamentally conservative, because the main tension of the stories is a struggle to preserve the status quo. Another important aspect of horror movies is the hero. Usually they're female, white, virginal, represent everything wholesome and pure, and have a unisex name. (e.g. Sam, Ripley, Sidney, etc.)

The basic slasher film has its roots in a myriad of places. For example, "Little Red Riding Hood." The fairy tale we know as "Little Red Riding Hood" is derived from two sources; Charles Perrault ("Mother Goose") and The Brothers Grimm. However, the story is much older than either of them, and like a lot of well known fairy tales, in the original iteration of the story it's quite gruesome. In some of them, the Big Bad Wolf actually feeds the grandmother to a naive Little Red Riding Hood, and then gets her to disrobe and get in bed with him.

  • In The Brothers Grimm version, the girl and her grandmother were rescued by a passing hunter, and then proceed to fill the Wolf's belly with stones.
  • Perrault's version is noted for adding the "Red Hood," which takes on some symbolic significance since there is no happy ending for his Little Red Riding Hood. The Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood ... The End. Perrault intended the story to be a moral to young women about "all wolves" who deceive. The redness of the hood has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of sin, sexual awakening and lust.

Variations of almost every element of "Little Red Riding Hood" appears in modern horror movies. The Big Bad Wolf is the archetypal "slasher" villain; a predator who shows almost (or true) supernatural abilities to deceive and manipulate his victims, which are almost always mainly women. Throw in Perrault's sexual symbolism, and you have the virginal "Final Girl" of many horror films.
One, two; Freddy's coming for you
Three, four; better lock your door
Five, six; grab your crucifix
Seven, eight; gonna stay up late
Nine, ten; never sleep again
The simplest definition of this is "the last character left alive to confront the killer" in a slasher flick. The character in question tends to follow a certain set of characteristics. The most obvious one is being (almost) Always Female. She'll also almost certainly be a virgin, avoiding Death By Sex, and probably won't drink alcohol, smoke tobacco or take drugs, either. Finally, she'll probably turn out to be more intelligent and resourceful than the other victims... It's also interesting to note how the Final Girl can be interpreted in film theory. On one hand, the character seems to be the living embodiment of stereotypical conservative attitudes of what women "should be." On the other, feminists have noticed that through this device the mostly male audience (or...not) is forced to identify with a woman in the climax of the movie. In practical terms, the makers of a horror film want the victim to experience abject terror in the climax, and feel that viewers would reject a film that showed a man experiencing such abject terror.
  • Teenagers + Premarital Sex = They Will Die.
  • Also, as your friends/family are being hacked to bits day after day, it just sets the mood and always the perfect time to have sex with the boyfriend, who may or may not be the killer.
  • Teenagers + Alcohol and Drug Use = They Will Die.
  • Instead of running out the front door, when confronted by serial killer/monster/alien, characters will instead trap themselves inside their domicile by running up the stairs, or into dark basements and closets.
  • If said characters should be smart enough to run out the front door, brand new cars, which had no sign of problems earlier in the film, will not start.
  • Do NOT go into the bathroom!!! Bad shit lurks in bathtubs and behind shower curtains.
  • Do NOT go into the woods if you hear an eerie sound coming from that direction! Whatever it is can stay in the fucking woods. Let the squirrels and deer deal with it.
  • If the lights go out, do NOT look for the circuit breaker! Look for the damn door!
  • Cellphones and flashlights are affected with either low batteries or no signal at the most inopportune times.
  • If something from outer space should land near you, do NOT be curious by running up to it and poking it with a stick. Run the fuck away!
  • Although it's not as prevalent today as it once was, gays and transsexuals tend to be serial killers in a lot of movie plots. Those stories usually try to justify it by having the character's sexual "confusion" be a part of the killer's psychosis, which leads to the implication that being gay and/or transsexual is sick.
  • Apparently all evil monsters, aliens and serial killers are racists, since people of color hardly ever survive, and usually die first in horror movies.
There's a sound coming from the attic. Let me go see what it might be!
  • If you should hear something that sounds like screaming and/or a death rattle coming from the other room, the words "Let's Go Check It Out" should not come out of your mouth. And if your friend, boyfriend or girlfriend should say it, they're an idiot that's going to get you killed, possessed or eaten.
  • If in a group larger than three people, the characters must not do the logical thing of staying together when trying to escape from the haunted house, scary-ass woods or other place in the middle of nowhere. No, they must split up so they can "Cover More Ground" and be killed off one by one.
  • People over the age of 30 are useless. This includes the police and anyone of any authority. No matter how much evidence you may have that weird shit is happening, your parents will not believe you. In fact, the more you protest, the more they will think you are crazy and take actions that will indirectly help the killer to kill you (e.g. parents in the Nightmare On Elm Street films loading their kids up with sleeping pills).
  • No matter how much a scientist is told their experiment is dangerous, this supposedly smart person will ignore all the warnings staring him/her in the face and proceed to horrifically mutate himself and others, or put the world/galaxy/universe in danger.
  • The character set-up at the beginning of the film as the town drunk/idiot/batshit crazy person will always know more than everyone else by the end of the film. In fact, at some point toward the end, he will explain the entire plot to the main character (and audience), as well as the motivation for the monster/killer.
  • The lead female character, who has done nothing but scream, run, and cry for 90 percent of the movie, will display a clever genius-level intellect by film's end, when confronting the unspeakable evil.
  • No monster or villain is ever dead, even when killed in the way that is supposed to kill them once and for all. And victory only comes through sacrifice. A character will do something incredibly brave, and gives up something of great importance or gets killed/seriously injured in the process. There's something tragic, romantic, and triumphant about a Heroic Sacrifice. One of the most famous examples in history is the story of a certain Jewish Carpenter that defeats death.

In most movies and television programs, we are taught that "love conquers all." In most love stories, persistence and patience eventually opens people's eyes to the love of others that they couldn't see. Even if they at first reject you, if you just stand outside their window playing "In Your Eyes" they'll eventually see that you're destined to be together.

However, that's also dangerously close to the mentality of most stalkers. So what are the cliches and stereotypes common to romantic comedies and dramas?

  • Having a lot of sex is a sign of dysfunction and sickness. It can't be that you're single, hot and like having sex. Instead, it's a hint of a dark secret in a character's past, or signifies the person can't really connect with someone on a "deeper" level.
  • Most films and television shows subscribe to the idea that virginity is "special." A person has to find the right girl or guy to have sex with, otherwise it will be a scarring experience that causes regret. Only a person who's "The One" will result in an emotionally and physically satisfying experience. And this is a trope that isn't exclusive to women. Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin does the same thing with Steve Carell's character.
  • The degree to which two characters experience "love at first sight" and are meant to be with each other is directly proportional to the amount of torture and suffering they must experience from everyone they know and life itself in order to have any chance of having "happily ever after."
  • In any love triangle where the main character is torn between either two men or two women, the story will begin by presenting both suitors as attractive, wonderful people. But around the end of Act II or the start of Act III, one of the suitors, who has been nothing but an angel up until that point, will do something extremely dickish (e.g. scream at the main character, forget about an important date in the main character's life, etc.) letting the audience know they're not "The One."
  • If a character is blonde and female, she is most likely either dumb, easy, superficial or pure and innocent. If a female character is brunette, she is most likely smart, tough, Goth or evil. And red heads? They're either evil vixens or soulless, ginger outcasts.
The kind, hot blonde that will call me "master" ... Or the evil, hot brunette sister?
  • Guy gets girl. Guy does something mind-numbingly stupid, or a horrible misunderstanding occurs that causes him to lose girl. Guy gets girl back in the final scene and they live happily ever after.
  • Guy secretly loves girl who sees him as just a friend. Girl dates jerk. Guy rescues girl from jerk, she realizes he's her true love, and they live happily ever after.
  • Guy loves girl who is a bad person. Guy's best friend, who happens to be female, is secretly in love with him. Guy realizes in the final act that his female best friend is his true love, and they live happily ever after.
  • Guy from the wrong side of the tracks is in love with high-society girl. Guy and girl's parents disapprove of their coupling. However, in the end love conquers all, and they live happily ever after.
  • Nerdy guy pines away for the school cheerleader/popular girl. Through a series of wacky and zany circumstances, the two become friends. The more popular girl gets to know nerdy guy, the more she falls in love. A misunderstanding will occur that threatens to doom their budding relationship, before they declare their true love in the final scene and live happily ever after.
  • Nerdy girl pines away for the school quarterback/jock. After getting a makeover, which consists of removing her glasses, putting on makeup, and getting her hair done, Nerdy girl finally gets a date with school quarterback/jock. However, she realizes how superficial he is at the last moment, and rushes back into the arms of the nerdy guy that loved her pre-makeover to live happily ever after.

Within both the romantic comedy and action genres, there's usually a sidekick or ragtag bunch of friends that help the lead character. Either it's a wingman for the guy or a best friend for the girl that's usually "wild and wacky" while pushing the protagonist towards their goal. Robin to Batman, Sancho Panza to Don Quixote, Enkidu to Gilgamesh, and so on and so on. Interesting enough, animated films and TV cartoons tend to make this character an ethnic stereotype more readily than live action movies.
Some examples of the best friend archetype are:
  • An African American with attitude that acts as the voice of blunt truth, while also being the comedic relief.
  • A flamboyant gay man, who acts as the voice of blunt truth, while adding a sassy finger snap.
  • A nebbishy, neurotic Jew who worries about the actions of the lead character. Also, if it's not clear this best friend is a Jew, the writers usually make it explicit by throwing in a line that references the character's Bar Mitzvah or a High Holy holiday.
  • The clumsy, fat best friend. He/she is there to be the contrast to the main character. Sort of like the cinematic equivalent of a before and after picture.
  • An "ugly" best friend, who really isn't ugly. He or she is just slightly less hot than the lead character. Also, this type of character will likely wear glasses, has a bad haircut or wears their hair in a pony-tail, setting up the scene at the end where they take their hair down and the audience is supposed to realize how hot they really are, since according to Hollywood logic, all ugly people are just a makeover away from being a supermodel.
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site