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Most Villains and Heroes catch onto their roles quickly — one wants to Take Over the World, one wants to save it; one wants to Kill All Humans, one wants to protect them. But for all their differences, once they choose a side, they have the same problem: they're a slave to Public Relations.
To both Heroes and Villains, reputation is everything. Actions don't determine your rep; rep controls your actions. If their reputation is ever at stake, they must act according to their role to reinforce their image.
Heroes always have to maintain a Good reputation. They have to Save the Villain, can never Shoot the Dog, must modestly declaim their own greatness, and above all, Thou Shalt Not Kill. It's the reason they stick around to help an Untrusting Community rather than leaving when they're obviously not wanted and why it hurts when you can't please everyone. On the flipside, once wronged a hero is perfectly justified in getting some amount of comeuppance, since it's only "fair".
Some villains also want a Good reputation. If they're not a Knight Templar who completely believes they are good, they'll be a Villain with Good Publicity and pretend to do good. They'll secretly pour all their investments into a Kill Sat to cause The End of the World as We Know It, but they'll do it all under the radar (or control the radar) or tell people that it'll change the future. This good rep gives them a token Karmic Protection against a hero just barging into their homes to arrest them, as well. Some of them will even expend the effort on Bread and Circuses to actually do good.
Nowadays, though, a great majority of villains are going for a 0% Approval Rating. Evil Is Cool and Good Is Boring, and the Noble Demon and Card-Carrying Villain will do everything in their power to earn their Bad reputation and cover up their Hidden Heart of Gold. A hero could Blackmail them for life just by taking a snapshot of them being Licked by the Dog. Conversely, the villain will hit a hero where it hurts and complicate their life by orchestrating a frame up.
This public relations mindset doesn't do much for the old "Be Yourself, do the right thing, and don't care about what others think about you" Aesop. It even gives the Big Bad some extra leverage. A Diabolical Mastermind doesn't have to shoot that meddling hero to get revenge for foiling that armored car robbery, just give some incriminating shots of him trespassing to save someone falling from a burning building to the local paper. And if that Cape is a real pain in your neck, if you frame them for a crime, you can count on them not trying to break out of prison since they're bound to follow all the rules. It's dangerous being a Slave To PR. They should have become an Anti-Hero.
Nothing solidifies the Hero/Anti-Hero line better than this trope. Anti Heroes do what they have to do, not what looks right. They do their own thing, whatever serves their purpose, and couldn't care less about what their reputation is. The town hails them as a hero for killing that drug dealer? They don't care. The cops are crying for their head on a pole for starting that street rumble? They don't care. They've been locked in jail while there are serious criminals out there waiting to be taken down? They'll break out. In fact, they'll often clash with the Designated Hero over this difference.
Mind you, Anti Heroes do prefer a fearsome, rebellious reputation, but that has more to do with appearing brave and tough than good/evil.
See Lawful Stupid, Chaotic Stupid for when this is taken to its extreme. Compare Contractual Purity. Contrast What You Are in the Dark.
Real-life actors and movie industry workers are slaves to this, too. It's Selling The Show.
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Yu-Gi-Oh! GX: In two simultaneous Sword over Head scenes in the same building, Hell Kaiser and Edo admit that even though they would like to show their enemies mercy, as self-appointed antiheroes, they can't, and deliver the fatal blows.
Being about a group of people in a city of corporate superheroism, none of the heroes in Tiger & Bunny can escape the insistence of their sponsors and director on the importance of creating a spectacle and raising ratings. Karina is expected to be the 'sexy' Ms. Fanservice to the detriment of her esteem and crime-fighting ability, Kotetsu is openly mocked for being an idealistic Destructive Saviour, and Ivan's Shrinking Violet personality doesn't go well with the theatrics of HeroTV. Barnaby comes across as very media-friendly, although the reasons why turn out to be suspect.
Explored by Samaritan in Astro City, where he forces himself to make public appearances and accept awards so that the public, and possibly himself, do not think he's aloof and uncaring, thus complicating his efforts. He's also painfully aware that he could very well use the time and his Super Speed to save lives.
Subverted by Gail Simone in Secret Six, where the team decide that being "villains for hire" doesn't mean they can't take more "heroic" jobs if the money's right. This is lampshaded as being an unusual decision in The DCU.
In the world of comic book Madame Mirage, the technology that allowed people to become superheroes and supervillains was outlawed, as were the superheroes and supervillains themselves. Dutifully, the heroes all turned themselves in - and, in gratitude, were arrested and thrown in prison. The supervillains, of course, merely opened up legit front organisations and carried on being evil.
Another comic book example: In Miracleman #14, innocent young Johnny Bates, in order to stop the other boys at his group home from raping him, reluctantly says the word that transforms him into the mad Kid Miracleman. Having dispatched all of his assailants, Kid Miracleman is about to spare the life of the one nurse who had been kind to him. He then says, "I'm sorry. They'd say I was going soft, wouldn't they?", and punches off the top half of her head.
In the comic book Superstar: As Seen on TV, due to the nature of the title character's powers, the more popular he is, the stronger his powers are. As a result, even though he hates the whole celebrity game, he continues to play it because it's the only way for him to stay an effective superhero.
Harvey Comics Black Cat is described has having become a super hero not for any kind of moralistic call to action or desire to pursue justice, but rather out of boredom from the restricted cage from her celebrity lifestyle.
This ends up kick-starting the plot of Mystery Men. With his world lacking a Cardboard Prison and all his villains either locked-up, executed or reformed, Captain Amazing has fallen out of favor with the public and his sponsors, driving him to release his arch-enemy from prison to have a supervillain fight for the publicity.
The main reason why Emperor Commodus doesn't simply have Maximus killed in the film Gladiator. Because the Romans love Maximus, his gladitorial prowess, and his willingness to defy the Emperor, Commodus can't do anything overt without risking the loss of the popular support of the people.
Stardust: Captain Shakespeare works hard to maintain his reputation as a terribly fearsome pirate. When his Camp Gay secret finally comes out, his crew tells him they knew it all along.
It should be noted that his fearsome act was more for his crew's benefit then his actual reputation. He wanted to be a high-class villain, showing mercy to Tristan while still doing a pirate's work, but his crew were more stereotypical and so maintained a rough-and-tumble attitude outside his quarters. His own name was for pure personal enjoyment of hearing his crew cheer "Shakespeare! Shakespeare!", knowing they had no idea as to the writer the name alluded too, but enjoyed the passion that they put behind it.
In Schindlers List, there's a scene where in order to tone down his sadistic cruelty, Schindler tries to sell Goeth on an ubermensch kind of idea that showing mercy is something the strong can do. As a result, Goeth spares a slave who had made a mistake. Then, he looks in the mirror and realizes he can't live with himself if he's not a murderous psychopath, and he goes back and kills the slave.
In The Princess Bride, the Dread Pirate Roberts is a carefully-maintained persona of wealth and cruelty, secretly played by a succession of men.
Played With in Hancock. The eponymous superhero has a "devil-may-care" attitude when it comes to being a superhero, and often causes as much (if not more) damage than what he fixes while trying to help the citizens of Los Angeles, which has led to his terrible reputation. It takes an ordinary citizen (a PR executive who wants to help after Hancock saved his life) and an intensive "12-step program" (which includes admitting his past mistakes, voluntarily going to jail and adopting a new catchphrase) for Hancock to realize he can keep his good reputation if he plays by the rules and remains mindful of the environment he lives in.
In Mercenary Fighters, an African nation wants to modernize by building a dam, but numerous local villages would be flooded out as a result. When the protagonist questions why they don't simply go ahead with their plan, the answer is "We can't! The press!" Instead, the government goes with the much more PR friendly route of hiring mercenaries to massacre said villages before proceeding.
Just to further confound things, they outright mow down a British journalist in the process. So much for "the press" being an issue.
Dean Gladstone from Neighbors has an extremely high regard for "good headlines".
Taken as standard behaviour in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series; where Whitemailing-"Threatening to reveal a mobsters anonymous donations to charity", is listed as an Anti-crime alongside "Proffering with embarrassment" and "Breaking and redecorating."
Come to that, just about every other thing in the Discworld seems to be affected by this trope in some way or another - people's expectations and beliefs frequently affect, at the very least, the aspects of supernatural entities not affected by the morphic field attributed to being human-shaped â€” a mistake on the part of a very inept sculptor resulted in the Ephebian Goddess of Wisdom carrying around a penguin instead of an owl; an entire separate timespace exists so the Hogfather can deliver all his presents in a single night; and Death's domain has a black-on-black, skull-and-bones motif because, quite frankly, it's expected.
Commissar Ciaphas Cain quite literally blundered his way into becoming a Hero of the Imperium, a reputation that he could do well enough without when it ends up getting him into trouble (as it almost inevitably always does). However, as running away at the first opportunity would disgrace him in the eyes of his followers and cost him the benefits of said reputation (as well as possibly his life), he is often forced to act against his own self-preservation instincts in order to keep up appearances.
However, the possibility that Cain simply doesn't give himself enough credit is also left open.
It's possible that this is the only thing restraining Randle P. McMurphy. He's perfectly willing to fleece you of your money, but he wants you to like him while he does it. Being put into a Bedlam House was one of the worst things that could have happened to him, since the respect the other inmates have for him is directly related to how much he rebels against the Head Nurse, and he'd rather be their hero than escape the brutal punishments that result from defiance.
A very powerful recurrent theme in The Hunger Games. Katniss quickly becomes aware, before the Games begin, that if she makes herself into a memorable, likable persona, she'll be more likely to earn sponsors. The love story that she builds between herself and Peeta makes the ratings of the Games soar. This theme only gets stronger as the books go on: the fabricated engagement, marriage, and expected child between her and Peeta is a dominating theme of Catching Fire, and it culminates in Mockingjay when it is strongly implied that the rebels bomb a town square full of children, in a hovercraft labeled as the Capitol, in order to convince everyone in the nation that the Capitol is evil. PR is possibly the most powerful weapon in The Hunger Games.
Gilderoy Lockhart, Harry's second Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, from Harry Potter. He set up quite a name for himself with his good looks and books about his fantastically badass exploits fighting magical creatures. Too bad he never did them. He just wiped the memories of the people who actually did them to take credit for them. Eventually he tries to wipe Harry and Ron's memories after they find out, but the spell backfires on him.
In Firefly, resident Bad Boss Adelei Niska is obsessed with maintaining image and reputation, to a point where he tortures and kills anyone who fails to do a job for him, including his own wife's nephew.
On the other hand, Zoe was confident she could walk in and out of his lair with a large pile of cash without being robbed and murdered, based on Niska's need to uphold his albeit twisted code.
Played for several laughs in Married... with Children, most obvious in the "Reverend Al" episode, where Marcy single handedly crushes Al's "Church of NO MA'AM" by showing the congregation pictures of Al and Peggy at her birthday, eating in a restaurant, watching a performance of Cats (with all the proceeds going to the Chicago ballet) and disappearing into a motel, all the while being lovey-dovey with each other.
Marcy: There you have it. Your leader. On a date! With his wife! Deeply in love!
Disgusted church visitor: Reverend Al! Tell us you were with a hooker! Or at least a guy dressed like one.
Al: I have sinned! <crying> I have consorted with my wife! <people booing and leaving>
In Babylon 5 the Minbari are so much this that one can stop a civil war with ritual suicide.
This gets invoked several times in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. The episode "Sex, Lies and Videotape" involves the villain trying to bring Superman down by...accusing him of sleeping with a married woman. Another episode, "Whine Whine Whine", involves Superman being sued for slightly injuring a man whose life he saved. With other people thinking this is a swell idea, Superman is stuck with hiring the only honest (if not particularly successful) lawyer in town, because his image and personal feelings prohibit him being represented by a slimeball.
The Palace explored the relationship between modern royalty, the media, and the public in every episode of its short run.
In Scandal President Fitzgerald Grant is a Republican president with a rather liberal agenda which makes him disliked by plenty of people in both parties. The only way he can accomplish his goals is to maintain high public approval which means that his various sins and indiscretions have to be swept under the carpet. His public image of a devoted husband and family man requires him to hide the fact that he is in love with Olivia and he started to despise his wife.
In The Wire (as, arguably, in Real Life) the Baltimore Police Department are slaves to crime statistics, arrest rates and public opinion of their efficiency and the political power games involved in maintaining their image makes it near-impossible to do any meaningful investigation. Ineffectual investigation methods, charging major criminals with minor crimes, relegating prodigious detectives to meaningless posts, ignoring connections between drug dealers and politicians are all used to maintain the illusion of effectiveness. Similarly, the Drug Kingpins themselves are shown to be equally hamstrung by their need to be feared by competitors.
JAG: A very common trope for this show. The protagonists work for the Department of the Navy and although they are primarily concerned with the proper functioning of the military justice system, the overall PR and public opinion ramifications are never far away from their minds or actions. The news media, congressional people or other groups often play up various incidents. PR considerations are often hinted at by superiors (usually the SECNAV) and are often talked about behind closed doors (to avoid the appearance of unlawful command influence).
The Pilot Movie features an exchange between the CNO, Admiral Drake, and the JAG, Rear Admiral Brovo, where it's made clear that the mere appearance of things (the ongoing Seahawk murder investigation and an upcoming Navy strike mission) are more important to consider than the actual facts.
Exploiting this trope is how the titular character of USA Network's Rush makes his living as a doctor. His clients are primarily celebrities who for various PR reasons cannot go to the hospital and Dr. Rush makes house calls and is extremely discreet. A movie producer does not want the tabloids to know that he broke his penis while having sex so he is offers Rush $40,000 to treat him. A star baseball player likes to beat up his girlfriends so Rush is called in to treat their injuries. When Rush finally has enough at the end of the pilot and beats the jerkass baseball player with a bat, the victim claims to have fallen down the stairs rather than let the cops and the public know what really happened.
The SourcebookBook of Exalted Deeds, based around the Good alignments, devotes sections of its first chapter to avoiding the Lawful Stupid trap. The first lesson: when the villagers tell you "A dragon is attacking us!" it does not ding your alignment to ask, "How big and does it have friends?"
However, the book also establishes that performing an evil act to save a lot of innocent lives is still ultimately a victory for evil, and that a hero may end up in a situation where they can't avoid doing an evil act. But since good and evil are actual forces in DnD, this makes sense. And the book stresses that the forces of good are forgiving, though heroes must pay a price to make up for what they did.
Paladins (the character class) in the Dungeons & Dragonstabletop roleplaying gamemust be Lawful Good and follow their chivalric codex of tirelessly slaying evil, upholding good, protecting the innocents... lest they fall from grace and lose all their abilities. Some dungeon masters take this to vindictive extremes, punishing the character (and by proxy the player) for even the slightest transgression. (The worst variety of DMs deliberately engineer no-win situations where the Paladin is practically forced to break their code.)
Sometimes not even a transgression. You can fall for evil deeds performed inadvertently (this can technically include furthering a villain's Evil Plan), evil deeds performed while being mind controlled and evil deeds performed by other members of the party, though most non-vindictive DMs will allow for a little leeway in this regard. And paladins do options for atoning for whatever evil deeds caused them to fall, thus regaining their powers.
Conversely, blackguards must be evil.
Blackguards and Paladins have it easy compared to the variant Paladin of Slaughter, who must be Chaotic Evil. You must disrespect all authority figures that haven't proven their physical superiority to you, refuse help to those in need and sow destruction and death at all opportunities. All opportunities. It seems quite likely that if this paladin is ever given the watch for the night, someone will die. Horribly.
The Paladin of Slaughter is also forbidden to associate with anyone who's not of Evil alignment, and forbidden to have henchmen, followers, and cohorts of any alignment other than Chaotic Evil. That's right, the Chaotic Evil paladin variant has the strictest rules about about who they can work with. Somebody seems to have forgotten what "chaotic" means.
And don't even begin to think about what it means to be a Paladin of Freedom. Chaotic Good. You must disrespect authority and sow freedom at all opportunities. Good luck figuring out what that actually means. This is especially difficult to understand given that an earlier book had contained the Holy Liberator, who was very similar in nature to the Paladin of Freedom except that the code of conduct was basically "Help people and fight evil, and beyond that it's silly to try to give a strict code to a chaotic class."
4th Edition changed this, so now there is a single Paladin class who can be any alignment, but the alignment must be the same as the god the Paladin dedicates himself to. They retain their powers no matter whatnote How long it'll be before that get changed is anyone's guess, given that the idea of a fallen paladin was in the past central to the class., but if a Paladin strays too far from his god's tenets, his compatriots will hunt him down and drag him back to be judged by that god's followers.
Exalted plays around with this trope a lot, on all sides of the equation. The main protagonists, the Solar Exalted along with the Lunar Exalted, are both hailed as "Anathema" by two thousand years of propaganda, which is one of the main obstacles in their work to save Creation. Of course, once they grow powerful enough they can simply make people love them anyway. That goes for pretty much everything in the setting except mortals, actually.
The most infamous example would be the First Age Solar Desus, who personally invented a Charm that made everyone see him in the best light. Whatever he did, it was Good, and if it wasn't Good, it was for the Greater Good, and he's an even bigger hero for taking up that burden. It says a lot that general consensus is that he was one of the lesser monsters amongst the First Age Solars.
In Fate Of The World the player is this. All the time. Some policies will improve your standing with a region, others will hurt it. Neglect a region too badly and your standing will suffer. Get a 0% Approval Rating, and you will be kicked out of the region for a couple of decades, which by the time they do let you back in will probably have more problems than before you got the boot. Wonderful.
Iji has a unique take on this with the Komato: the council does what the general population wants, and the general population wants genocide. However, much of the council members are Punch Clock Villains, including the leader of the fleet in charge of finishing the job, and really don't want to do it. In other words, the leaders want to be good, but they also need to maintain an arguably evil reputation.
In Hatoful Boyfriend the reputation of the noble Le Bel family is neither heroic nor villainous, though like a good noble Sakuya would argue that it transcends heroism. It's basically all about ostentatious presentation, general nobility, and high, expensive quality. In Holiday Star, Yuuya and several other characters are able to manipulate him by bringing this up. Hiyoko gets him to try a kind of cafeteria food just by talking about its supposed aristocratic appeal.
In Friendly Hostility, Colin's job as a model is going to cause trouble for him when he becomes a dictator. Apparently, it's hard to consider someone a fearsome tyrant when there are photos of them smiling and playing volleyball being distributed by the resistance.
In the Global Guardians PBEM Universe, this is the open reason why the White Legion, the official hero team of the Ku Klux Klan, does what it does: to generate some good PR for the Klan. And these guys aren't villains in hero's clothing, either. If it weren't for their vile opinions on racial supremacy and the place non-Whites should have in society, they’d be true-blue, noble heroes. They don’t even hesitate to help non-Whites, as they see such actions as “setting a good example for lesser peoples”. Nevertheless, they are not looked on too favorably by anyone but racists and neo-nazi white supremacists, even when they do good deeds like rescuing over 300 flood victims during the worst of the New Orleans/Hurricane Katrina debacle.
In Worm, the PRT (which is in charge of the Wards and the Protectorate—the youth and adult government superhero teams) has the Image department, which cares about this and nothing else. Chapter 23.1 introduces Glenn Chambers, head of Image.
Hoyden: All Glenn cares about is the image, the PR. Up to you to figure out how to hold yourself like a 'lady' while you're dealing with street thugs with guns.
In more than one way, as it turns out: Glenn has Hidden Depths, knowing just how insane Tagg, the General Ripper Director of the PRT is, and he really wants to help Taylor get rid of him and finally clean the PRT's corrupt command structure...and to do that, she needs the PR behind her, something shehastroublewith.
Played With when it comes to the villains. They must be able to maintain a reputation as being formidable, so that their underlings respect them and their enemies think twice about attacking them. Half of what the Undersiders do, for example, is built around maintaining their Rep in the Brockton Bay villain scene. But villains can't have too nasty a reputation, or otherwise they end up exhausting the heroes' patience and/or causing the public to demand their heads. There are rules to the hero/villain game, after all, and breaking them causes everyone to take drastic action. So simply being a villain is a balancing act, with one slip-up having potentially disastrous results.
The Justice League and Batman clash over this issue in the episode when the American government won't believe someone hijacked their Kill Sat. Green Lantern at first suggests they let them think what they want to think and continue doing their job ("We're not here to be liked."), but Wonder Woman convinces them they need the people to have faith in them and turn themselves in until their names have been legally cleared. They ask Batman, the original Anti-Hero, to join them, but he unhesitatingly rejects such a plan and instead works to find the real culprit. As it turns out, it appears that having both options working in tandem was the best thing to do; the League gained credibility that they were being responsible, while Batman, who had a reputation as a loose-cannon anyway, was able to convince Amanda Waller of the truth.
A lot of the Cadmus arc was about this. To begin with, one of the reasons Cadmus exists in the first place is because of the negative PR superheroes gained when, firstly, Superman was brainwashed by Darkseid, and secondly when Justice Leaguer Hawkgirl was revealed to be The Mole for an alien invasion. Later on, after discovering Lex Luthor is behind the Government Conspiracy, the Question attempts to kill Luthor, knowing his public image as a "crackpot" will keep the League from being seen as part of the murder.
Aang of Avatar: The Last Airbender allows himself to be thrown into prison when an Untrusting Community accuses his past life of murder. Katara tries to reason that he can't sit in jail while he has a world to save, and Sokka points out there's a whole nation of Firebenders who hate him, so what's one little town? But Aang believes he can't do his job as the Avatar with people thinking he's a murderer and has Katara and Sokka spend the episode clearing his name. It looks like he would have been perfectly willing to accept their death sentence if they hadn't come under attack, putting PR even above the very duty that makes him The Chosen One.
Naturally, Prince Zuko would have the exact opposite experience in his Day In The Limelight. Like the classic Western Anti-Hero, he saves a child and a town from a gang of tyrannical "protectors," with their cheers and support, until he reveals he's a Firebender, not to mention the heir to the Fire Nation throne. The townspeople watch him leave with scowls and pitchforks and not the least bit of gratitude, and he doesn't say a single word in his defense.
The importance of PR or "honor" to Aang is brought up again in the season 3 episode "The Awakening" when the world believing that he's dead and has failed in his mission AGAIN causes an onset of Aangst.
The Spectacular Spider Man's L. Thompson Lincoln, aka Tombstone, aka The Big Man (maybe), is the crime lord of New York, but had a charitable public image to maintain. To the point where when he and the other two potential criminal rulers of the city had a meeting and a quick agreement to stop fighting just long enough to kill Spidey, he turned against them and saved the wall-crawler because he couldn't be seen consorting with those two. Of course, the moment they were out of sight...
Politics, Dating, Sports... Even in the real life, a good reputation is really important. However, we don't want examples, partly it would only be asking for trouble and partly because we don't want this section to be larger than the rest of the wiki.
Pretty much why Nonviolent Resistance and protests works today in the modern era thanks to press being widely available where its most important for governments and other organizations to protect their image and reputation.
This is actually what the concept of honor used to mean, and what it still means in many cultures.