So I’ve been consuming some media lately.
As you do. Especially during a global pandemic.
And I realized something.
I am really, really done with the circus trope.
I’ll do you one better: I realized recently that there are two different circus tropes in popular media, and I’m tired of both of them.
I’m so tired of them, that I’ll break them down for you.
Oh no- we’re in the circus now!
We all know the joke. Through a unlikely series of events, our characters wind up in a circus, where they’re mistaken for performers and put on the spot to perform in front of an audience.
Hilarity, awkwardness, and dare I say, shenanigans ensue.
I actually realized how tired I was of this as I watched Marvel’s recent series WandaVision. Gladly, the high level of meta-reflection this show exudes lead to only teases of this familiar trope. The characters rather humorously ‘nope out of the trope’ because you know, the plot is waiting.
A good example of tight writing, if you ask me.
Leaving out the circus-part generally has this effect, now that I think about it.
What I really don’t like about this trope is exactly that: it basically always functions as an enormous and often forced segway from the actual plot.
Yes, it can lead to a tense situation as the characters try to escape whilst smiling and waving. Some shenanigans generally ensue, which in turn can ease some built up tension between characters. But except for maybe resolving some internal conflict within the team, a loss of (screen)time is generally all we ‘get’ from these scenes.
It’s a rather meagre way to create some character development or stall the plot, for example to align storylines better. But generally: the circus only offers lukewarm conflict and cliché shenanigans.
And that is not how I prefer my shenanigans.
Circus bad – people mean
The other trope I came across recently also deals with the circus, and actually has a more critically significant message. Or at least, I think it tries to be? I just think it has been chewed out too much by now…
Let me explain what I mean.
We have all seen this. Much loved animal- or otherwise exotic/’other’- character gets abducted by traveling group of circus performers, who treat them cruelly in order to make them perform and make money for them.
Oh, the cruelty of man.
Best example of this comes from Avatar: the Last Airbender in the amazingly horrible episode Appa’s lost days.
I recently ran into it during my read of The Ballad of Sir Benfro: The Golden Cage, where dragon Benfro’s abduction by an evil circus-man was actually used as an end-of-book cliffhanger. It continued on into the next book, The Broken World. This is where I was suddenly triggered by the ‘why’ of it all. Additionally, that same week I watched Disenchantment’s season 3, episode 5: Freak Out! where the exact same thing happens to the small elf-character Elfo.
They get captured because of their unique nature, or Otherness, if you will; then degraded and paraded in front of people in order to earn money and treated horribly.
Why is this such a prevalent trope in popular media? It can’t only function as filler. At least, I hope that’s the case, since would be a lot of cruelty to put your characters through just to fill some time…
Let’s get… political?
So let’s get the PC thing out of the way: animal cruelty is bad.
Circuses, as they existed for a long time, were generally also bad, since they often included the former.
However, circuses that contain non-domesticated animals (like dogs and horses) are largely in the process of becoming illegal. Whereas the practice is not yet outlawed in the entire western world, a lot of activists and organizations are working tirelessly to restrict the exploitation of wild animals for entertainment.
So I’m not saying that this is ‘no longer an issue in the real world’. I am saying, however, that I do not think that this issue should be represented in media as often as it still is, and in this way.
The activist argument for showing this cruelty in order to incite change is not as strong as it once was. Mainly due to what I just mentioned: it is on the decline, public opinion is already shifting. But more importantly: this cruelty should not have such a prominent and frequent place in entertainment.
Because, to be honest, it’s not always used as an activist statement to free the animals, now is it?
Let’s nuance a bit more. Retroactively denying the ‘badness’ of circuses is a no-no, don’t get me wrong. Let’s not even start with the weird backtracking of Disney’s Dumbo reboot and its removal of animals in circuses way before ‘its time’.
That kind of hypocritical denial certainly is not the way to go, and feels very out of place..
Insert setback here
Yes. In any story, there have to be setbacks and obstacles to overcome. These can not always come directly from the main villain of the story. The circus, with its unique quality of always traveling, and thus having the ability to just ‘appear’ when the story needs it, is too often used as a bonus-bad guy.
Added to that comes the other bit I don’t think is fair: the Othering of ‘the circus people’. Along with every circus-abduction narrative comes a band of very nasty, travelling people, who care not for the wellbeing of animals and only care about their own comforts and making money.
Representation is very important, and I believe that the fact that this circus trope is still used in new media is a sign that we still have a way to go in that regard. But my main issue with this trope comes from a narrative perspective. This circus trope shows such a hopeless picture, with so much unnecessary cruelty, that I cannot imagine why this pointless violence is something so many stories include it.
The one-sided view that most of these stories use is another narrative injustice done to make the world a bit more prejudiced and mistrusting of others.
These unnecessarily cruel people ‘just exist’, often get little backstory and are apparently some of the easiest ways to include an unredeemable ‘baddie’ into your narrative. Straightforwardly claiming ‘some people are just evil’ is no longer something that can easily be done in media, since character development and nuance have become such important elements to television. The last 20 years also saw a lot of consideration for the position of the ‘bad guy’ in media, along with spades of movies that actually take the perspective of the appointed Baddie to reflect on this very black-and-white approach.
(Films like Joker and Maleficent are examples of stories which put the villain of a known story in the spotlight. While not every film that attempts this has the same critical success, just the fact that this shift in perspective happens at all, and is appreciated by its audience, says enough in my opinion)
Back to the issue at hand, I believe that generally this statement of ‘some people are just horribly evil and here they are’ is a plot point we can do without. I get that writers sometimes just need a horrible villain for the heroes to rally against, or a way to keep a certain character out of the story for a while.
Not the circus.
It’s been done. It’s been done well.
We don’t need any more of it, and the amount of cruelty you put your characters through with this trope is not worth the segway it offers you.
I don’t hate the circus
After this whole ordeal, I somehow feel that I have to make a note here that I don’t hate the circus in general. As a performative genre it has a very unique position and reputation, and while a lot has changed for both the contents and the reputation of the circus, and a lot has gone wrong historically, I believe the spirit of the circus is a great one. Like carnivals and funfairs, they offer a kind of wonder and excitement that no kid should miss.
This turned out to be a much more tricky and sensitive subject than I expected. All I intended to do was discuss some tropes I’m tired of, but I guess some topics just have such an complicated status that things have to be addressed.
At least, I felt like I had to address them.
All I have to say in conclusion is this:
Search your heart, and you’ll see that most times, the horrible trauma you’re giving your character by letting them live through what is basically slavery is really not necessary to motivate them. That includes when they’re literally fighting slavery.
If you really need them to experience something traumatic, let it be connected to the plot. Because the Stereotypical Travelling Circus of Blatant Unmistakable Evil and Abuse is no longer available as your scapegoat of choice.
I’m not sure if it ever should have been.
In this post, I used images from/ and referenced the following sources:
- Wandavision (2021) Episode 7 Breaking the Fourth Wall
- Avatar the Last Airbender (2005-2008) Season 2 episode 16 Appa’s Lost Days
- Disenchantment (2018-) Season 2 episode 5 Freak Out.
 Check out this link for some factsheets on how the battle for the Circus Ban is going in the United States: https://aldf.org/article/protecting-animals-through-local-legislation/prohibiting-circuses-and-traveling-acts-that-use-animals/