Named from the phrase "the tall poppy gets cut down," an aphorism used in much of The Commonwealth of Nations to describe resentment of those whose accomplishments elevate them in prominence above their erstwhile peers, Tall Poppy Syndrome is in play when a character or characters act to achieve parity with another character who is presented or perceived as somehow "better" not by improving themselves but by bringing the other guy down to their level.
This trope is often found in Dystopias and Crapsack Worlds, and may also show up in Crapsaccharine Worlds. Indeed, in a Crapsaccharine World, Tall Poppy Syndrome may be the first clue that everything isn't as sweet and nice as it appears on the surface. Common in social ghettos and places where institutionalized categorism (e.g. racism) results in Aggressive and Internalized categorism, with people of a certain category (e.g. race, gender, sexual orientation, species, mutant etc.) believing —even on a subconscious level— that they are inferior and should act in a certain way, and hence pull down and demean anyone who acts differently, rises to greatness, or escapes the social ghetto. Expect this variation in alternate and futuristic worlds that have social divide or contain Dystopian elements, and from writers who are trying to write social commentary about Real Life — with whom it's a particular favorite.
The term comes from a story about Tarquin the Proud, last king of ancient Rome. Tarquin was asked what to do with the leading men of an enemy city his soldiers had captured. He sliced the heads off the tallest poppies in his garden and so the enemy leaders were put to death by beheading. The idea, however, is even older: Herodotus describes Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus, doing the same thing in a grain field as advice to Periander, who had just seized power in Corinth.
Also related is the Japanese proverb Deru kugi utareru — "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down" (in English, the phrase "proud nail" often has the same implication), which not only refers to ambition, but anyone who fails to conform; the Norwegian "Jantelov" (see in Literature below); the PhilippineCrab Mentality or "Crab Bucket Syndrome", based on the myth that if you have at least two crabs in a bucket, you don't need to have a lid, because the other(s) prevent any one member from trying to climb out of it; and the Dutch proverb boven het maaiveld uitsteken, more or less literally, "standing above the level at which the field is mown". Russian proverb "Вот радость — у соседа корова сдохла" (Vot radost'—u soseda korova sdokhla "What a joy, a neighbour's cow has died") describes the schadenfreude borne out of such mentality.
Often associated with the Marxist doctrine "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." It's one of the reasons for someone to engage in Obfuscating Stupidity or an Obfuscating Disability. The Nietzsche Wannabe will have this attitude if adhering to the original definition of the term "Nietzschean."
Compare Do Well, But Not Perfect & The Complainer Is Always Wrong. Contrast Moving the Goalposts and Social Darwinism, which are about those on top making it harder for those at the bottom to climb up, rather than those below acting to bring down those who try to rise. Contrast also the American aphorism "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." See also Ambition Is Evil; Enemy Mine; It's Popular, Now It Sucks; and Enemies Equals Greatness (where it's people who hate an individual for being great).
Examples in Fiction:
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Anime and Manga
In Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai Yozora frequently attempts to sabotage, belittle or humiliate others who she feels are getting in the way of her friendship/potential romance with Kodaka. She refuses to make any sort of attempt herself.
In Naruto, Kakashi uses the nail proverb to describe Sasuke during the bell challenge.
Heroic variation in Dragon Ball. Master Roshi enters the Tenkaichi Budokai in disguise, fearing that his (very advanced) pupils will defeat the competition easily and grow complacent. After Goku defeats him the second time around, he muses that his pupils have surpassed him and he no longer needs to worry about challenging them.
There's a joke where a dead guy of [insert Acceptable Nationality Target here] is in Hell and is escorted past the cauldrons that hold members of various nationalities, each one with a devil or multiple devils standing guard to push back in the ones trying to get out. At the cauldron for his people, there are no devils, because of the given trope. A particularly common Russian one—possibly the original—has Jews in a cauldron with hundreds of devils furiously spearing them, Poles in another cauldron with a few, largely idle devils, and Russians in the last one with no devils.
A more serious joke: A man sits in his room and complains about his bad life. Then, an angel appears and tells him: "God cares about you, so He decided you get one wish - but whatever you wish for, your neighbor will get twice of it!" The man thinks about it: "So if I wish for a house, he'll get two? If I wish for a million dollars, he'll get two?" The angel nods. Then the man states: "I want to be blind in one eye!" The angel leaves weeping.
A more subtly spiteful joke has the protagonist use his only or third wish to donate a kidney. Other common variants include the man wishing to "be beaten half-dead" or to have half his property be destroyed or to have a "mild heart attack".
Similarly, this one from the Soviet Union: A man is visited by a genie, who offers to grant him a wish. The man responds that his neighbor has a cow, but he himself has no cow. The genie asks if the man wants a cow of his own too. The man says no, that he wants his neighbor's cow to die.
In one story of The Smurfs, they found a magic egg which fulfills wishes. One smurf wishes for a big cake, but doesn't want to share it. (Not nice, but justified if anyone else can have as many wishes as he likes.) The next smurf then wishes for said cake disappearing.
The Kingpin: They, "society," hate you because they don't want your help. You remind them of how weak-willed and sheep-like and unspecial they are. How gleeful they are, deep down, to be ordinary. They don't want heroes. They don't want special people around them. Because if there are special people and they aren't one of them— well, who wants that? Who wants a constant reminder that they aren't even trying to be special? See, the difference between you and I is that you really are just a child. You benefit from the wide-eyed optimism of youth. I do envy that, somewhat. But... like many of your decisions in life... it's just naive. And I don't envy that harsh cold slap of reality that will come your way soon enough. But I guess it's inevitable. People don't want to be special. I do think that. It is my philosophy. They— people want to be told what to do and how to live and they want men like me to tell them. They want to go to work and do as little as they can possibly get away with, and they want a big cookie at the end of the day for doing it. And they want men like me to give it to them.
One early Spider-Man story revealed that J. Jonah Jameson suffers this in regards to Spider-Man. Hence his relentless persecution of the webslinger.
This trope was given as the reason the depowered superheroes receive no outside help in JLA: Act of God, because it turns out that all the Muggles and world governments are secretly happy that their superpowered protectors are now "on the same level" as everyone else. That's right, everyone is happy that Superman is gone. Doug Moench doesn't read many comics besides Batman. Considering the very long list of alien conquerors who have tried to take over Earth, these people may not be so happy later that all their super-powered protectors are gone.
Scrooge receives this treatment in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. When he returns to his hometown after making his first billion, he's immediately pelted with tomatoes: "The Highlands were nae good enough fer ya, eh?".
Which is hilariously built upon when Scrooge rages at the treatment, and the villagers are honestly shocked that he took offense.
The village of Sunny Town in the fangame Story Of The Blanks has the reveal that the blank-flanked ponies murder anypony who finds their purpose in life and earns a Cutie Mark.
Referenced in Turnabout Storm for the reason why Ace Swift's death is being kept under wraps. The Judge tells Twilight that they don't want to worry the other racers, because the murder "may give them the idea if they become 'too good' the murderer will go after them next".
This is used to set up the plot in Hot Fuzz. The protagonist, London police officer Nicholas Angel, is reassigned to a small village inThe West Country because his hypercompetence is making the entire rest of the Met look bad in comparison. Unfortunately, their figures go "a bit squiffy" without him, forcing them to swallow their pride and ask him to return...only to be told he's come to like the village.
The movie Blue State actually has a Canadian cite the tall poppy metaphor approvingly as part of introducing an American would-be expatriate to Canada.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: The Rt. Ordinary Horatio Jackson is presented with a heroic soldier who singlehandedly destroyed six enemy cannons and rescued ten captive soldiers. Instead of awarding him a commendation for his bravery, he is ordered executed so as not to demoralize soldiers who are less brave and capable.
One of the major themes of The Incredibles revolves around this idea, where the superheroes are forced to give up "hero work". Originally this was because of a series of lawsuits and increasing public outrage and mistrust of supers in general; years later, this means Dash isn't allowed to go out in sports because he'd be too good, and Syndrome wants to give the world super-powers so that "when everyone is special, no one will be". On the surface, and at its core, with a thick layer of aspiring despot in between, Syndrome's philosophy is actually the antithesis of this trope - Raising everyone else so the people who naturally excel are average. Of course, Syndrome doesn't wish to artificially raise anyone, and if he wasn't doing it for megalomania and revenge, murdering superheroes as "test runs" to help his plan succeed and possibly placing dangerous weapons in the hands of people who would use them for evil, giving out jetpacks to people would be awesome.
In A Fish Called Wanda, this is one of the many, many insults that Otto hurls at Archie and Britishness in general.
Otto: You know your problem? You don't like winners.
In Transcendence, there are several discussions on the notion there will always be people who fear change and will violently fight to prevent it. RIFT's goal seems to be achieving this trope on a global scale, by ridding the world of technological advancements.
The Purge: The reason why the Sandins will be killed by their neighbors, with them even invoking The Only One Allowed to Defeat You on the teenage Purgers, is because the Sandins make a lot of money from having sold security systems and have "flaunted it" by making additions to their house, breaking the standards of the neighborhood.
Repeatedly touched on in Atlas Shrugged and Objectivism as Obviously Evil, with repeated connections to Marx's slogan, which the novels' government and Twentieth Century Motor Company, who implement Tall Poppy policies, interpret as "punish those with ability, and reward those without."
In Unseen Academicals when Glenda is resistant to her friend Juliet taking an opportunity for a lucrative and glamorous life as a fashion model, she's told by Pepe that this is an example of "Crab Bucket", but doesn't understand, and Pepe doesn't elaborate. When a fishmonger later tells Glenda that you can keep crabs in a bucket with no lid, since any crab that tries to climb out is pulled down by the others, she realizes what the reference meant. The lower class in Ankh-Morpork suffer from such a case of Tall Poppy Syndrome that anyone trying to elevate themselves is seen to be "giving themselves airs" and "having ideas above their station" and dragged back down by their peers - or, just as often, by themselves, these habits having become ingrained. Overcoming the "crab bucket" mentality is a big part of Glenda's Character Development.
This is a major factor in most of the Sharpe stories — the Establishment is deeply offended that a common soldier born to poverty could have become an officer. Then even more offended when he goes around being better at it than them. Similarly, a lot of the common soldiers resent being given orders by a "jumped-up Sergeant". To the point where they attempt to frag him several times.
Deconstructed in Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, where everyone is literally handicapped to the lowest common denominator. Athletic people must wear heavy chains to make them slow and clumsy. Smart people wear earphones that randomly play loud noises to disrupt their thinking patterns. And beautiful people must wear masks.
The Scandinavian term Janteloven ("the Jante law" or "the law of Jante") comes from the 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose. In this book, the first-person narrator comes from a small town called Jante in Denmark, where the working-class inhabitants follow the unwritten Jante law, which consists of rules that basically boil down to "You're shit just like us, and don't you dare forget it."
1: Don't think you're anything special.
2: Don't think you're as much as us.
3: Don't think you're wiser than us.
4: Don't convince yourself that you're better than us.
5: Don't think you know more than us.
6: Don't think you are more than us.
7: Don't think you are good at anything.
8: Don't laugh at us.
9: Don't think anyone cares about you.
10: Don't think you can teach us anything.
11: Don't think there's anything we don't know about you.
In The Adventures of Pinocchio (only the book), the blue fairy promised him he'd become a real boy if he's always well-behaved and gets good grades in school. Then one day, the other boys tell him that the monster whale was seen near their place, and that they should skip school to look for it. Pinocchio hesitates, but then decides to join them because he cares about Geppetto. When they go to the sea, no whale. Pinocchio gets suspicious, and wants to know what's going on. Then, the other boys tell him, that they'll look bad if he's an A-student, but if everyone in class was as lazy as they are, they'd be just average.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus complains that "All men are equal" has led to schoolteachers who promote all students instead of holding back underachievers.
Straight from the Gospels, and thus Older Than Feudalism: No man is prophet in his own land (on how Jesus Himself is panned in his own home village, Nazareth, when he tries to deliver His message). This trope is pretty much Word of God, for some.
In Matched, Ky does this on purpose so, as an Aberration, he won't be selected to fight in the war.
This is the entire point of the book Among Friends by Caroline B. Cooney. Jennie Quint is regarded as pretty much perfect (except for math) at her school and she's a super-overachiever. Jennie herself isn't an egotist or a snob, but even her very best friends are getting really fed up with constantly being overshadowed by Jennie's perfection.
In Huckleberry Finn, Huck's father (a slovenly, abusive, and neglectful drunkard) is absolutely enraged by the fact that Huck is getting an education and a chance at a decent shot in life, because he thinks that now Huck is going to think he's above his dad.
This is a major theme in Girl In Translation. The main character, Kimberly Chang, is repeatedly shown to be jealous of her much wealthier classmates. On a more serious note, Kimberly's aunt forces her and her mother to live in a dangerous, roach-infested apartment and work long hours of hard labor in a Chinatown sweatshop from fear that Kimberly will be more succesful than her son.
In Invisible Man, one day when the protagonist is working for the Brotherhood he receives an anonymous, unstamped letter warning him, "Keep working for the people but remember that you are one of us and do not forget if you get too big they will cut you down." Only too late does he recognize who the familiar handwriting belongs to.
Discussed in "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" of The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape, a senior devil from Hell, discusses how Tall Poppy Syndrome can be used to undermine democracy. While a full discussion would become a lengthy entry, the short version is that Screwtape says the Devils can undermine democracy and education - the government least inclined toward the Hellward road and one of humanity's greatest achievements, respectively - by introducing mediocrity in a citizenry that refuses to accept excellence. Talented individuals become ashamed of their talents because their excellence elevates them. In short, while the Enemy (God, from Screwtape's point of view) would want humans to excel while remaining humble and kind, the devils want humans to be proud but mediocre. Screwtape best summarizes it as confusing the message "All men are created equal," meaning all humans deserve rights, equal protection before the law, and to be valued as individuals, with "All men are created equal," to mean no one is truly more virtuous, more talented, more industrious, or more capable. The full lecture goes into much greater detail.
The short story "Null-P" by William Tenn describes the rise and (extremely eventual) fall of a future society so afraid of individual variation that all rewards (e.g. scholarships or public office) are given to those whose performance is closest to the exact average of their group.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull features a seagull (the titular character) who discovers that the true purpose of life is to learn to fly as high and as fast as physically possible. When he shares this discovery with his flock, he is savagely driven out. Later, he returns in a transcendent spirit form and recruits followers, all of whom suffer the same fate.
I Love Lucy has a rather humorous take on this: Frustrated at Lucy's perpetual mistakes, Ricky draws up a very tight, rigorous schedule for her to do her chores. It actually seems to help the scatterbrained Lucy, until Ethel and her friends complain that Lucy's efficiency makes them look bad, that, "How can we say we can't get everything done in one day, when you're doing just that?" An appeal to her vanity makes Lucy herself decide to derail the schedule, naturally when Ricky has friends over, and Hilarity Ensues.
Survivor and just about every other reality show based on Voted off the Island. If someone makes too good of a showing, the other contestants deem him/her a threat and vote them out. Hence, why Obfuscating Stupidity has shown itself to be a popular strategy.
In Arrested Development, George Bluth Sr. would deliberately denigrate Michael's achievements and suggestions as a way of keeping Michael looking for his approval (while privately acknowledging that Michael actually does well), while the rest of the family mostly looks on Michael's work ethic and financial sense as him lording it over the others (which Michael occasionally admits is slightly true).
In True Blood, this is the motivation behind a group of normal humans driving around and killing all humans with super-abilities. They don't try to hide it either.
Suits reveals in a flashback that Mike sold answers to an exam in college (and was expelled for it) because some frat boys cheated him and Trevor out of money that Trevor needed to pay to a drug dealer. The frat boys did it because Mike's Photographic Memory made him an A+ student and they felt that he made them look lazy and stupid in comparison. So they essentially robbed him of all his money so they could show him that he wasn't smarter than them.
On Longmire a Victim of the Week was a Cheyenne man who left his tribe, got a college degree, married a non-Indian and then decided to come home so he could help others out of the crippling poverty that plagued the tribe. Quite a few of the Cheyenne considered him a traitor who sold out to the white man and was acting like he was better than them. He ended up being force fed alcohol and painted red so he appeared more like a 'real Indian'.
The first verse of Son of a Scoundrel by Shel Silverstein gives this impression when the narrator disapproves of his neighbor suddenly acting more stereotypically high class after coming into money, noting that Australians are all 'children of convicts' and loudly questioning the neighbor's parentage when he passes in the street. This notion of bringing down people acting above their station (IE, better than everyone else, making the narrator out as The Everyman) is also used to rebut a Parental Marriage Veto in the second verse and backtalk a judge attempting to shut down a brothel in the third verse.
Jeremy is initially excited to get an "A" on a test...then suddenly has a vision of his parents saying they're proud of him and from now on, will expect him to bring home As on every test. Cut to the next panel where he says he thinks he blew it.
Carly Colon, who was nearly an overnight success in WWC, was hit by a case of this notable enough to get a newspaper article on the subject when he got a WWE developmental deal. Granted, that paper was The Sun and he's long since become popular again.
If you're one of the "lesser" evils (i.e., fiends), so to speak, in Dungeons & Dragons, everybody above you keeps bullying you just for kicks (and everyone below you keeps trying to take your job). The top-level guys have no one looking down on them, at least not honestly (as archdevils and demon lords often don't think much of each other, but they're on more or less equal footing) but on the other hand, they're surrounded by legions of Starscreams...
In Jak 3: Wastelander, after Jak beats Kleiver's high score at the Gun Turret challenge, Kleiver, ever the good sport, remarks, "The tall poppy has to be snipped sometime." Incidentally, Kleiver is depicted as having an Australian accent.
A combination of this, genuine bitterness, and her own position probably being worse in its own way is why Goldanna, Alistair's half-sister, is so disdainful of him in Dragon Age: Origins. (Of course, if you were just trying to scrape by as a washerwoman and your half-brother walked in wearing elaborate armor and accompanied by three other people all dressed up equally fine...)
According to the novel The Calling, Alistair isn't even her blood relative, being a Half-Human Hybrid who doesn't have any of his elf mother's features.
The same novel both plays straight and inverts this with the brother and sister Grey Wardens Geneveive and Bregan. Geneveive wanted to be a Grey Warden all her life, but when the time came the recruiter refused to accept her unless Bregan took the joining as well. Throughout their careers Geneveive watched as Bregan was loved and respected as commander and knew she would never be like him, this made her resent him. Meanwhile Bregan hates his life, despite how well he did as a warden he never gets over the fact that he was forced into it and he resents Geneveive for wanting to be a warden and dragging him down with her.
In the Deus Ex: Human Revolution tie-in novel Icarus Effect, the title effect is described as a biological as well as a social phenomenon where, to maintain "stability", if a small number out of a large group attains some distinct advantage, those lacking that advantage will attack the abberants until that advantage is gone.
In the Dead MoneyDLC of Fallout: New Vegas, the reason Dean Domino tried to ruin Frederick Sinclair is because he was happier and more successful than him. It's also possible for him to develop this towards The Courier.
Andrew Ryan complains about this during the introduction of Rapture in BioShock, though the game can be seen as evidence that his opposite is just as bad if not worse.
Homestar Runner: Marzipan's 'pre-school' in a Strong Bad Email about coloring. makes fun of this trope. Marzipan gives Homestar, Strong Mad, and Homestar crayons that don't actually color, "so that no one Life Blossom shines brighter than any other".
In Russia, the audience viewed the million-ruple prize as a reason to mourn the fact that there's one less person to share the rampant poverty and despair with. That's harsh, Russia.
In the Global Guardians PBEM Universe, Prometheus is a paramilitary terrorist organization whose goal is the elimination of all superhumans. Their reasoning is that the presence of such beings hampers the growth of, and makes irrelevant the accomplishments of, normal humanity. Surprisingly, they don't have any problems at all with Batmanesque "trained supernormals" (people who are merely superbly trained athletes and martial artists) or those whose powers come from technological ingenuity (like powered armor pilots).
In "Simpsons Bible Stories", after the family realize that they had just Slept Through the Apocalypse, they see the Flanders ascend to heaven. Lisa then begins to ascend to heaven, but Homer pulls her back down and says "Where do you think you're going, missy?" The family then descends into hell together.
"Four Great Women and a Manicure" has Marge tell a story — a parody of The Fountainhead set in a preschool — that suggests the educational system does this.
In "I'm with Cupid", Apu's many elaborate shows of affection towards Manjula cause Springfield's married women to feel neglected by their cheapskate husbands, so they give them the cold shoulder in responce. While most of the men realize that they should put more effort into showing their wives they love them, Homer instead redirects their anger at Apu, convincing them that he is the problem, not them, and organizes them into a mob determined to sabotage Apu's next spectacle.
The central conflict of the first season of The Legend of Korra revolves around the fact that some people are born with the ability to "bend" the elements around them, while most people are not. Combined with a government that lead basically exclusively, Organized crime groups based on bending elements, and the most popular sport in the city being professional bending, you can understand why the Equalists would jump at a chance to bring everyone down to their level.