Sham Ceremony

"Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!"

Ceremonies can be very significant. Swearing in of a president or crowning a king decides who is going to rule a country. A marriage ceremony declares that two people belong together, and an academic degree gives the recipient the right to be officially recognized for their academic competence.

But what if the ceremony is a sham?

The president was never elected, the king is just trying to avert attention from the fact that brute force is what's really keeping him in power, the academic degree was bought from a fake university, and so on.

Few dictators dare to openly say Screw the Rules, I Make Them!. No, they need an excuse for wielding power over everyone. Of course, this excuse can have ANY degree of flimsiness, as long as people are sufficiently uneducated or scared to buy it.

Not restricted to political power, this trope include any case when a ceremony or ritual in itself gives power, privilege or recognition in society while the true power dynamic is obfuscated. Not limited to successful attempts, this trope includes exposed and failed attempts to gain or maintain the status from a Sham Ceremony.

Sometimes called a Farcical Aquatic Ceremony, in reference to the scene quoted in the page quote.


Comic Books
  • In one old Robin Hood comic, the Norman villain kidnaps a lady and forces her to marry him. When the heroes rescue her, she seems to be more upset about the discovery that the priest wasn't a real priest than about the fact that she almost got raped. A justified reaction, considering that in her society a unmarried rape-victim would be a social outcast.


  • German philosopher Oswald Spengler claimed in The Decline of the West that Monarchy is this (necessarily) in the age of democracy - and parliamentarianism in the age of The Empire, like the late Roman republic.
  • The Stainless Steel Rat for President. A planetary dictator has regular rigged elections to maintain the facade that he's a democratically elected President-for-Life. The protagonist decides to use this system against him by rigging the election in his own favour.
  • The protagonist of Infinity Beach has the job of fundraising for her agency. She comes up with the idea of inventing an award to present to a generous benefactor so he'll stay friendly. Later after escaping First Contact with an apparently hostile alien species that the government wants to keep quiet about, she's rewarded with an award that she can't remember having heard of before...

Live-Action TV
  • This is how Jeff got his undergraduate degree in Community - it's also why he has to go to community college.
    Duncan: I thought you had a Bachelors from Columbia
    Jeff: Now I have to get one from America, and it can't be an e-mail attachment.
    • His law degree was actually obtained legitimally even though he never took the required pre-law courses. Jeff is really smart but lazy.
  • Wiseguy. When Vinnie Terranova becomes a made man, the older mafiosi insist on the traditional ceremony, only to get into an argument over how it's performed.

Video Games
  • World of Warcraft has many of these, since every single character in this online world is treated like The Chosen One and the player is supposed to pretend that all other players (as well as his own alternate characters) are The Hero of Another Story in spite of doing the exact same quests.
    • Perhaps most noteworthy is when the character gets declared king or queen of the Ogres. Since the quest is a group quest and was quite popular back in its days, it rarely took long until a new batch of five new kings & queens was publicly announced by the same old ogre.

Web Comics
  • In The Order of the Stick, the characters are made to stand trial, to be judged by an angel "Of Pure Law And Good". It's all fake, however, designed to trick an order of paladins. Even the charges against them were made in bad faith and just a ploy to force them to come to Azure City so they could be blackmailed into working for the Paladins' leader on a job which would violate an oath all the Paladins have taken.

Western Animation
  • On Adventure Time, the Ice King is always kidnapping princesses to be his wives. One episode has him getting married to one who appears to be willing, but on closer inspection, Finn discovers that he had cursed her into marrying him.
  • On The Simpsons, Troy Mc Clure marries Selma to dispel rumors that he had been doing inappropriate things with fish and jumpstart his floundering career. Selma soon finds out that the marriage is a sham, but she's married and living "the good life," so she doesn't mind. Until Troy wants to have a baby with Selma; she reasons that while "they're not hurting anybody" living a sham marriage, she can't bring a baby into a loveless marriage, and divorces him.
  • Transformers: The Movie: After leaving Megatron for dead, Starscream planned on having an Awesome Moment of Crowning when he finally assumed the role of Decepticon Leader. Unfortunately, Galvatron was not impressed.
    Galvatron: Coronation, Starscream? This is bad comedy.

Real Life
  • The famous Sokal Hoax.The physicist Alan Sokal once had a bullshit article published in a the postmodernist journal Social Text, which for reasons that seemed good at the time, was not peer-reviewed. The article was named "Transgressing The Boundaries: Towards A Transformative Hermaneutics Of Quantum Gravity", and it was designed to point out a number of flaws with '90s postmodernism's somewhat peculiar and quite often hostile take on modern natural science. That he was able to publish an article that by his own admission was something he crapped out relatively quickly by simply using as many hip and pretentious polysyllabic words as he could was used by him as evidence that the whole "science wars"—'90s High Postmodernism's bizarre-in-retrospect quarrel with the natural sciences—was at best a highly questionable enterprise.
  • Single-party "elections".
    • Elections where all parties or candidates except one are suspiciously unambitious and underadvertised is the more modern version.
  • When Barack Obama was sworn in as U.S. president, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court read the oath incorrectly. Obama hinted to him it was wrong, but when the Chief Justice continued to ask him to recite it incorrectly, Obama just went with it. Later on that day, they had the Chief Justice re-administer the oath, this time correctly, to forestall any attempts by people to claim that the incorrect oath made his swearing-in a sham ceremony and therefore he wasn't really president. While there was debate as to whether he would have become President, it wasn't necessary. In practice, the oath is largely ceremonial, since the swearing-in customarily takes place the minute the new term begins. Whether or not the President-elect takes the Oath on the prescribed day, his term begins on that day. See "" for the case of David Atchison, credited by some to be "President for a day" since Zachary Taylor refused to take the oath on a Sunday.

Alternative Title(s): Farcical Aquatic Ceremony