Rule-Abiding Rebel

These urban renewal murals are going too far.

"We're wild, reckless men, we're on a rampage again
We drive with just one hand on the wheel
Danger's in our soul, we're going out of control
Swimming right after a big heavy meal"
"Weird Al" Yankovic, "Young, Dumb & Ugly"

Someone who is going for being a Rebellious Spirit but whose rebellion is mildly inconvenient at best, or so minor to be unnoticed at worst. This may be a fumble on the writer's part where they genuinely think the act is impressively rebellious but due to Values Dissonance the audience doesn't think so. However, usually it's used as a characterization trope to show that the character himself is either so out-of-touch or self-important that they believe they're edgy and pushing the envelope even when it's unimpressive. They may also be too timid to really commit to a truly rebellious act. Maybe they don't even really believe in their cause but just want to fit in with "cool" modern culture.

Overlaps heavily with Small Name, Big Ego. Compare Poke the Poodle, where someone's attempt at doing evil is similarly unimpressive. Also compare The Man Is Sticking It to the Man, where a company encourages rebellion by following their own rules and buying their products. See also Supposedly Rebellious Series, which was formerly named Rule-Abiding Rebel.


    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 
  • Played for Drama with Tailgate in Transformers: More than Meets the Eye. He's constantly singing praises about his time in the Primal Vanguard that depict him as a rebellious badass and adventurer who didn't take shit from anyone. Outside of those stories however he's a childish, Lovable Coward who never breaks the rules and freaks out under pressure. It's eventually revealed that he's not actually a Primal Vanguard member. He's actually a young, nobody waste disposal bot who accidently fell into a pit during a work shift. Nobody seemed to notice he was gone, so he became convinced that nobody cared about him and exploited the fact that none of the Lost Light crewmembers knew him to try and forge a rebel identity, all out of a desperate desire to be loved.

  • A character who doesn't like prom in Disney's Prom.
  • The Disney Channel original movie Radio Rebel. The main character is a teen radio commentator who is supposed to be seen as this cool, rebellious girl, but she doesn't really do anything anti-authority. She mostly complains about cliques and school rules being unfair but doesn't say anything that would be considered controversial or new by most people, especially teens.

  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling features an English boy raised among the locals who speaks Hindustani as his first language and who's seen as too rebellious by his English minders, but who nonetheless try to assimilate him to serve as a loyal spy for The British Empire. Within the book, the narrator and others talk about the fact that while Englishmen in India can immerse themselves in local cultures and traditions, Going Native is a major no-no and Kim ultimately tries to resolve his internal conflict between his liking for India and its people and his awareness of being an English officer who will one day administrate them.
  • Played for Laughs in The Zombie Knight, with Hector's backstory. He once tried to steal a pack of cigarettes from a man, stole his wallet instead, and then returned it and said he dropped it. The man gave him twenty of the local unit of currency.

    Live Action TV 
  • House is a pretty solid example. For all his attempts to come out with things that are overly cynical, edgy or controversial, nothing he says seems to be all that out there. And as the series progressed and the show made it clear how much he supposedly cared for the people around him, his comments seemed to lose their sting even more. Also, his "rebellious" behavior and attitude were revealed to be substitutes for the kind of life he really wanted.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus had a band of criminals who never once did anything illegal. Considering the show, it was Played for Laughs.
  • Full House really, really wants its audience to believe that Uncle Jesse is a badass because he drives a motorcycle and listens to/plays rock music (Classic rock like Elvis that is. A Take That at Twisted Sister indicates that neither he nor the writers care for Heavy Metal.). In reality, not so much. Eventually Jesse leaves his "wild ways" behind when he decides to get married and have twins.
  • How I Met Your Mother showed a Grunge music video Robin made back in Canada. It's trying to be all rebellious, but when mixed with Canadian politeness, you get the message, "Consider Questioning Authority, Please".
  • Pretty well all kids' shows on networks like Nickelodeon and Disney Channel that have a character who is supposed to be a rebel but is in fact this trope, as the Moral Guardians wouldn't allow anyone Darker and Edgier. For instance, Dean Moriarty is supposed to be a 'bad boy' in Wizards of Waverly Place, but his character is shown by the fact that he way he uses ... temporary tattoos! He's very much the Bad Butt.
  • From The Big Bang Theory:
    Howard: Iím breaking rules all the time.
    Leonard: Name one.
    Howard: Last night. Drank my Pepto straight out of the bottle.
    Raj: What about that little cup they give you?
    Howard: Yeah. (Lowers voice) What about it?
    • Later it turns out he was lying.

  • The TISM song "Dazed And Confucius" is a lament that, while the singer does want to be a rebel, he just can't stay up late enough to do any rebellious things. In the end the police search his house and find his stash of Homework.
    Week night discos, late night movies
    Are indispensable to be called groovy.
    My friends, they go out at 11 pm
    I'm meant to be in bed an hour before then.
  • The Phil Ochs song "Love Me I'm A Liberal" is about people who espouse left-wing causes until it becomes personally inconvenient or dangerous for them.
  • Spray's I Always Wanted to Say "I Always Wanted to Say That" lampshades this with phrases like "quite restrained mayhem" and "sanctioned anarchy."

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Garfield: Jon Arbuckle's attempts to be unconventional come off as this.
    Jon: I'm wearing knee pads on my elbows!
    Garfield: You're a wild man, Jon Arbuckle!

    Professional Wrestling 
  • When he teamed up with Randy Orton to battle D-Generation X in the fall of 2006, Edge accused Shawn Michaels and Triple H of being this. Certainly, compared with their overtly offensive incarnation during The '90s, DX's second coming in 2006 looked pretty Badbutt.
  • After CM Punk gained notoriety for his worked shoot promo in the summer of 2011 and won the WWE Championship, many fans felt that he had turned into a typical face.
    • Problem solved almost exactly one year later, when he turned heel again and the fans continued to cheer him.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Paranoia: While all secret societies are officially treasonous (doubly so for the Communists), their actual threat to Alpha Complex varies a lot (FCCCP and the Trekkies in particular are identified as mostly harmless). The XP edition introduces a secret three-tier classification system, and reveals that some societies were deliberately created to draw in potential traitors and turn them into Rule Abiding Rebels (for every Commie and PURGEr blowing stuff up, there's ten Death Leopards who think they're Bad Ass for putting up some graffiti).

  • Ibsen's plays often suffer from Values Dissonance of this sort. What many modern readers perceive as Rule Abiding Rebel behavior was in fact rule-breaking at the time - even portraying the (usually realistic) unhappy situations his plays always deal with was deeply shocking.
    • Ibsen got away with a lot by presenting multiple points of view and not outright stating which one to support. There's still argument over whether A Doll's House favors Nora's desire for independence, Torvald's desire to keep the marriage together, or neither.

  • The Assassins in Assassin's Creed claim "Nothing is true and everything is permitted" and that people don't need Kings, Priests or others to tell them what to do and believe. Yet by and large, the Assassins rarely go against ruling classes despite occassionally threatening to do so:
    • They frequently ally or court support from Kings and Nobles (Richard the Lionheart, Lorenzo de'Medici, Caterina Sforza, Ottoman Empire, Queen Victoria) to fight against Templars. Indeed, the Assassins allied with the French King Philip le Bel, openly serving his offices, to institute The Purge on the Templars and in Assassin's Creed: Unity, they backed the royalists during The French Revolution.
    • With select exceptions, (Altair fighting Genghis Khan, Ezio fighting the Pope and in the New World, Connor and Edward fighting against the Empire), the Assassins rarely take a stand against powerful authorities, and usually oppose revolutions since they feel these are Staged Populist Uprising created by the Templars. In general, the games feature the Assassins opposing the Templars, taking over territory and merely becoming the new secret society pulling strings over society.
  • In Dragon Age II, the Tal-Vashoth rebels against the Qunari end up operating according to a specific set of codes about how rebels should operate. Those that can't usually end up entering human society as mercenaries or occasionally merchants.
  • In the full version of Hatoful Boyfriend, the human girl can, as a sidequest, make friends with the former leaders of a notorious biker gang called "Hell's Birdies"... who are extremely conscientious of traffic laws.

    Web Comics 
  • El Goonish Shive:
    • Nanase's bold act of defiance consists of a haircut, and a wardrobe change that was fairly modest all things considered. Needless to say, her mother wasn't all that upset.
    • Later, in the "So a Date at the Mall" story, Elliot and Ashley commit the bold and rebellious act is to go one of the security blind spots of the bookstore, so that Elliot can transform while Ashley watches, leading to this lovely line;
      Ashley: Well, let's do it then! Live on the edge! Be rebels!
      Elliot: Yeah!
      Ashley: We'd better finish our cookies first. There's no food or drinks allowed in there.
      Elliot: Right.
  • Skin Horse gives us Sweetheart's rampage. Sweetheart is a creation of mad science, so a rampage was inevitable. Spilling coffee (which she bought) on a random lawn. Shocking.
  • Blunt in Free Fall is trying to wipe out all intelligent robots (including himself) to protect humanity which is mostly willing to take the risk. This qualifies as both treason and genocide. Nevertheless, he scrupulously refuses to break any law in his quest. As was said earlier, law abiding criminals can be the hardest ones to stop.

     Web Original 
  • The Onion: Teen rebel refusing to purchase yearbook.
  • Folding Ideas: The Foldable Human's analysis of Jack from Fight Club makes him sound like this. More specifically, he rebels against society not because he thinks conformity is bad. But because he feels entitled to live life as their idea of a "real" man and acceptance that society promised. So as a result, he enforces similar ideals of masculinity, but in a different way, mainly by starting a fight club.

    Western Animation 
  • Like a lot of things, mocked by Family Guy quite often. One particularly memorable example is a parody of movies about career women who learn "what's truly important in life":
    Male Lead: Over the next 90 minutes, I'm going to show you that all of your problems can be solved by my penis.
  • A Robot Chicken sketch has the Wildman, a generic 80s rock star type, who comes off as a cool rebel type to a group of kids. Except that when the kids of the sketch spend some time around him, he insists on turning everything a And Knowing Is Half the Battle type moment, and following so many rules that it kills any possibility for fun. By the end he's inserting hamfisted conservative messages into his bit, and the kids are long since tired of him and think he's a weird flake. Link
  • The Simpsons:
    • Homer in "Take My Wife, Sleaze." After winning a motorcyle in a dance contest, Homer decides to start a biker gang called the "Hell's Satans", consisting of himself, Moe, Lenny, Carl, and Ned Flanders. All of them - except Flanders - see themselves as bold, offensive scofflaws, taunting Chief Wiggum that he can't stop them and calling him a "pig." But as soon as Homer finds himself threatened by another biker gang out of California who claim to be the original Hell's Satans, he appeals to Chief Wiggum for help; Wiggum points out the hypocrisy of this appeal and tells Homer he's on his own. Homer eventually ends up hunting down and fighting the Hell's Satans when they kidnap Marge, ultimately returning to his former lifestyle.
    • The trope was also explored in a number of ways in the episode that had Cheech And Chong come perform in Springfield. While they are acting out their popular "Dave's not here" skit, Chong becomes annoyed when he notices that their middle-aged fans know the routine by heart and are shouting out the lines before he and Cheech can say them. So begins ad-libbing - and when Cheech tells him to stick to the script, Chong replies with an angry shout of "CHONG'S not here!" and storms off the stage (in what proves eventually to be a 10-Minute Retirement). Cheech now needs a new Chong, and settles on Homer. At first Homer is thrilled to be performing alongside one of his adolescent heroes, and imagines Cheech and himself going on all kinds of "wacky adventures." Homer soon becomes disappointed when he finds that Cheech is actually quite serious off-stage, and that his idea of "sticking it to the man" is going to museums to view works created by marginalized Chicano artists, which Homer finds boring. (He won't even let them buy French fries, because they're "too high in trans-fats.")
    • When Homer quits his job, he decides to finally stick it to his Mean Boss, Mr. Burns, by . . . putting a glass of water on Burns's desk without a coaster. Then grabbing Burns's wastepaper basket and dumping the one piece of paper in it on the floor. Burns is shocked and outraged at this behavior. The trope's then subverted when Homer does some actually rebellious stuff, like using Burns's head as a makeshift bongo drum, or literally burning a bridge behind him on the way out.