Social Climber

"When I get to America, I'm gonna rise straight to the top, I will! Just like cream!"
Kate McGowan, Titanic

Most people strive for acceptance in society, but these people take it up to an extreme - they are actively looking to better their position and make themselves known in society, and it doesn't matter who they crush in the process. These characters often start out poor, get their big break from some stroke of luck, get it into their heads that they can make it further, and thus begin their ascent through the echelons of society. With each higher position they achieve, they decide to aim even higher.

As such, they are often looked down on by other characters, for both their new money, for the dirty schemes they undertook to further themselves, and often for their comparatively horrible manners.

There are several ways this could work, none of which are mutually exclusive:
  • The Backstabber: Treacherous, deceitful, and manipulative - carefully working their way into the good graces of those in power, while plotting to betray them once it's either convenient, or their unsuspecting patsy has outlived their usefulness to them. They're also likely to take credit for someone else's work, or they'll see to it that they're the one who reaps the benefits from it.
  • The Butt-Kisser: It doesn't matter who's on top, the butt-kisser will do anything and everything to warm themselves to them in order to gain social favor.
  • The Gold Digger: Why bother spreading rumors or kissing ass when you can just mooch off other peoples' cash?
  • The Snob: In Real Life, originally Snob used to refer to the non-noble students of Oxbridge, who'd imitate the nobles' mannerisms Up to Eleven as a way of sticking it to them. Nowadays, it's used to refer to people who are perfectly willing to stick up their noses at people they've left behind.
  • The Idealist: Generally a more benevolent type (at least at first), this kind of social climber wants to make it into the elite to change the world, and at first, they try the more honorable ways of gathering prestige, such as heroism for glory's sake; however, to be a successful social climber, the Idealist has to resort to underhanded tactics and dubious schemes, and make compromises with his conscience. Usually, when the Idealist finally makes it to the top, he has already abandoned his morals for one reason or another and becomes one of the other types.

Compare Nouveau Riche, Rags to Riches, Self-Made Man and Working Class Hero. Often overlaps with Ambition Is Evil. A Social Climber may also be a Miles Gloriosus in order to warm himself to his intended circle. A school-age Social Climber would want to be In with the In Crowd. Note, however, that a Social Climber is not always a bad person, there are those who are genuinely good people who just happen to have ambition. That doesn't stop fiction from portraying ambition as evil fairly often. Though it must be noted that this trope when used is generally about the person wanting to leave his past and feeling ashamed of his roots, whereas a Working Class Hero traditionally embraces and is defined by his roots.

Examples

Anime and Manga
  • Suzaku Kururugi from Code Geass is an Idealist, who seeks to rise up the ranks of Britannian society to change it for the better. Villetta, meanwhile, seeks pure nobility by whatever means.
  • Berserk: Griffith's dream is to become the king of Midland even though he was born a commoner. He starts as a leader of the Band of the Hawk, a small band of mercenaries, and earns himself fame as a great military leader in the ongoing One Hundred Years War. Eventually he gets knighted and after he's led the Band of the Hawk into a war-deciding victory agains the Castle of Doldrey his mercenaries are given the title of "White", the highest possible honor an army can be granted. After the war has ended, however, Griffith can't climb any higher by military merits alone. His last plan is to marry princess Charlotte so he would eventually inherit the throne. In the end, the fact how close to succeeding Griffith gets only serves to make his fate that much more tragic. Griffith loses all that he has gained and sacrifices his men in a desperate attempt to salvage what has been lost.

Film: Animated
  • Monsters University reveals that Randall is one of these; he starts off as an Adorkable roommate of Mike's whose only desire, it turns out, is to hang out with the cool kids, whom he ditches Mike for at the first opportunity. This eventually leads to their rivalry in Monsters, Inc..
  • Cinderella- This seems to be Lady Tremain's major goal, and the reason she was attempting so hard to get her daughters to marry the prince.
  • Mentioned specifically by Wiggins about Governor Ratcliffe in Disney's Pocahontas.
    Ratcliffe: And don't think I don't know what those backstabbers at court say about me.
    Wiggins: All that talk about being a pathetic social climber who's failed at everything he's tried ...

Film: Live Action
  • In The Dark Knight the Joker becomes a social climber... in the criminal world... he doesn't want the positions for their own sake, but to sow destruction.
  • Kitty Packard in the 1933 film Dinner at Eight. She pesters her husband Dan about attending the movie's titular dinner party, which is expected to include the aristocrats Lord and Lady Ferncliffe among the guests. It could be argued that the hostess of the dinner, Millicent Jordan, is also engaging in this by having the party. The Ferncliffes are members of the English aristocracy, while the Jordans own a shipping company (and the Packards' money is newer yet).
  • Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, an adaptation of the Victorian novel, features a clinical deconstruction of a social climber and his drive to fit in with the "social betters" and the hypocrisy that keeps social barriers in place.

Literature
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser was an attempt to take this trope from its European setting and transplant it to American society, to show that it was Not So Different. In this instance the Social Climber uses Nepotism to get into the family business and also hopes to marry into money. (The same plot features in the film adaptation, A Place in the Sun.)
  • That Hideous Strength: Mark Studdock started doing this when he was still in school, abandoning his genuine but tragically unpopular friend to get into the top clique of students. During the story, he's doing everything he can to become part of the secret society taking power in town, unaware that they are basically working for Satan.
  • Littlefinger from A Song of Ice and Fire fits this trope perfectly. The son of a minor lord, he has used charm, wits, treachery and flattery to climb as high up the ladder of Westerosi politics as he can. As of A Dance with Dragons he is one of the most powerful Lords in the realm, being both Lord Paramount of the Trident and Lord Protector of the Vale. He's had to leave a substantial trail of bodies in his wake to get to that point, though.
  • Eugène de Rastignac from Honoré De Balzac's La Comedie Humaine is such a climber that his name has become synonymous with the trope in the French language. He's not especially dishonourable compared to others around him, though, and he makes mistakes and has setbacks. By the end of the series, he makes it to Minister.
  • Charles Dickens books often feature characters who try to escape their dark upbringing and arrive at a position of comfort and respectability though it almost always features characters who triumph by honest, hard work. David Copperfield is a good example. One reason why Great Expectations is regarded as highly mature is that Dickens finally critiques his use of the trope in showing the social climbing hero Pip to be a bit of a snob in his yearning for social respectability, only to discover that the Mysterious Backer of his rise up the social ladder was not the rich Mrs. Haversham as he had assumed but the poor convict Magwitch. This starts his Character Development.
  • The Great Gatsby:
    • Unsurprisingly, Gatsby himself turns out to be an Idealist version, despite several rumors to the contrary. He was born to dirt-poor farmers in the Midwest who left to seek his fortune, and used the money he inherited from an old man who grew to love him like a son to start living the high life. He falls under the Idealist category because he genuinely seems to believe millionaires are Gentleman Adventurers and the like, and his want to advance up the social ladder is not so much for personal gain as it is for winning Daisy's heart. He also fits the Idealist category because he's already gotten his hands dirty, and actually gains much of his fortune selling drugs.
    • Daisy herself is a Gold Digger, marrying Tom only for his old money.
  • Heather from Speak. She had no problems with dumping Melinda who, by the way, was struggling with her inner demons and trying to rebound from her traumatic experience over the summer, and abandoning her for a group of cool girls. To make it worse, she expected Melinda to help her out when she needed help the most. She does get chewed out by Melinda, which she deserved after her treatment towards her.
  • William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair is a famous portrait of a female social climber. It's moreover highly sympathetic and in the end Becky Sharp succeeds. It's also one of the few books where the focus is directed to the corruption of the society that forces people to be amoral for basic opportunities.

Live Action TV
  • Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances, a dissatisfied woman seeking to vault up the social ladder from her lowly upper-middle class retiree status, who fails miserably and humiliatingly.
  • Cora from Once Upon a Time started out as a lowly miller's daughter who used her wiles to get into the court's good graces and marry nobility. She will settle for nothing less than her daughter Regina being queen after her, arranging for her to marry Snow White's father after the death of her rival, Snow White's mother Eva.
  • Revolution: Tom Neville and Julia Neville seem to be a combination of the backstabber and the butt-kisser. "Ties That Bind" has the two throw their "friends" the Fabers under the bus to save their son Jason's life. "The Love Boat" has Jason say to his father's face that the man just wants to have people kiss his butt. He has a point, considering that Tom Neville becomes power-mad shortly have taking over the Monroe Republic in "Children of Men" and "The Dark Tower".
  • Babylon 5: This very much describes two of Londo's three wives, the ones he winds up divorcing. The final one doesn't really seem to care that much about it.
  • Main motivation for Gossip Girl's Dan Humphrey, though he spends a large part of the series vehemently denying it and even shaming others who do the same. His sister Jenny is a more honest about it example of this trope.
  • Stringer Bell in The Wire tries and fails to rise above his station in life and become a legitimate player. He's the ruthless but pragmatic Number Two of the Barksdale drug organization, and the show nevertheless effectively makes the point that someone with his intelligence, ambition, work ethic, and business acumen could have achieved a lot in life had he been born into an environment better than the slums of West Baltimore.

Theater
  • Everyone in the musical Titanic. See page quote.

Video Games
  • RPG Player Character tend to follow this behavior quite often; many quest lines are social climbs in different guilds and organizations, and it's not unusual to accumulate high positions and responsibilities, which somehow never get in the way of the primary activity of Dungeon Crawling or war-waging or world-saving.
  • In The Last Story, an explicit goal of some of the mercenaries is to become knights.
  • Progression in Wide Open Sandbox games often features examples of this. In Grand Theft Auto, the Player Character starts poor but eventually becomes super-wealthy, his mission-givers also show the same progression.
    • The most extreme example is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas where the hero Carl Johnson grows up in a Los Angeles slum with poor weapons and neighbourhood gun-fights, graduates to working with the Triads, moonlights with a corrupt American agent and then becomes a wealthy entrepreneur in the casino business while tussling with the Italian Mob for turf.

Webcomics

Western Animation
  • In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Rarity, who is a tailor and fashion designer, has this mentality; she aspires to be "a lady" and become popular in the higher spheres of society. Not through any unsavory means, but through her merits as an artist and person of good taste. She doesn't notice it, but the show proves to us that it's really much more of a matter of connections rather than genuine talent. That said, the show also displays her merits getting her such connections, such as being the preferred designer of pop star Sapphire Shores.
  • Mai's parents in Avatar: The Last Airbender seem to be a Butt-Kisser version. Their desire to advance in Fire Nation society leads them to force Mai into a submissive and meek persona when around others, and represses her emotions, so that others will think well of the family. Sadly just as her brother is born they have completed their social climb and give all of their love to him, leaving her to be The Unfavorite.