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Behind Every Great Man

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"I worked my way up to be a GM at a Sbarro in Tel Aviv. Then one day I’m stuffing couscous into a calzone, and I realized a woman’s life is worth nothing unless she’s making a great man greater."

Behind Every Great Man...stands an even greater woman!

Or in about a hundred variations is a Stock Phrase referring to how people rarely achieve greatness without support structures that go generally unappreciated and said support structure is a traditionally female role via being the wife, mother, or sometimes another relation. This trope is specifically about a man who is credited with something important but owes much of his success to the woman in his life.

He could be a noted scientist, a great scholar, a famous artist; regardless, everybody who's anybody knows his name. The only thing is, he's not the one who's doing it. Someone else is. And "someone else" is a woman. Maybe it's his wife, maybe it's his sister or his cousin. Whoever she is, he's getting the credit for her work.

Most often, this is because the woman has some reason not to want her name attached to the work. Maybe her writings, art, or scientific discoveries would never be taken seriously if people knew that a woman was behind them. Given a choice between her work being ignored and having it claimed by another, she might choose to let a male claim the credit. Sometimes she's happy that she doesn't have to occupy the spotlight, and can work in peace without dealing with the paparazzi (who her puppet usually takes in stride). Other times she is jealous, and bitter about the fact that she cannot simply step forward and claim her work as her own.

This trope is fairly common in historical fiction and seems to have a feminist undertone more often than not. It can sometimes be the result of Heir Club for Men, when the male heir turns out to be incompetent and his wife/mother/sister can't take over running the kingdom openly.

The Man Behind the Man is not a Distaff Counterpart, since that can still be a woman and the two can overlap. The woman in this trope specifically cannot claim credit for her own work because she is a woman. Additionally the The Man Behind The Man is far more often the puppetmaster, while this trope can still have the man being a dominant role if the woman is way too shy or otherwise unwilling to be in the spotlight, or he is actively stealing her work and sexist norms prevent her from resisting this treatment.

Related to Moustache de Plume, where the masculine "front" identity is fictional. Never a Self-Made Woman gives us the reverse situation (a famed woman is that way because of a male connection) but has a lot of the same underlying assumptions. Lady Macbeth may be (but doesn't have to be) an example. See also Puppet King if the wife is a consort whose influence is strong enough that she effectively rules the kingdom.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • This trope became a motive for murder in Case Closed: a tenured male professor plagiarizes the work of one of his female students, telling her point blank that nobody would've taken her paper seriously if she'd published it under her own name.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Without Riza Hawkeye, Roy Mustang would have been nothing. She's the one who entrusts the secrets of Flame Alchemy to him, thus making him the World's Best Warrior and sticks by his side as his adjuntant for every step of his way until he reaches his goals. Roy is perfectly aware of this, and wants to do his best for her too; in case of going off the deep end and losing the sight of his dreams, he asks her to kill him. She's definitely his Living Emotional Crutch and Morality Chain, to the point this gets used against Roy over and over again throughout the series. It's still thanks to her efforts that he doesn't fall for those traps.
  • Running Man: Liu is the player with the most wins in the game, but other players such as Popo knew that Liu isn't the champion of his home tribe. Liu admitted that the first champion is actually his older sister named Jean, who mysteriously 'died' and Liu took her place for this reason.
  • Trapped in a Dating Sim: The World of Otome Games is Tough for Mobs: Queen Mylene is this to King Roland. He forces as much of the work of ruling onto her as he can while he plays around with an ever growing list of concubines and plays hero in disguise as The Masked Knight. At least Roland shows signs of being Brilliant, but Lazy.

    Fan Works 

  • A Most Violent Year: Anna manages all of Abel's personal accounts and is a shrewd businesswoman herself. This ultimately saves his skin in the shipping terminal deal, as she's been skimming enough money from his accounts and setting it aside over the years to cover what his loans cannot. Abel isn't pleased with her secrecy; she isn't pleased that he's been taking the credit for her hard work over the years.
  • In Barton Fink WP Mayhew is a drunken burnout whose scripts are all ghostwritten by his mistress Audrey Taylor.
  • In Blondie Johnson, Danny gets credit for Blondie's genius ideas for most of the movie until she decides she's had enough.
  • In Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Julie is strongly suggested to be the true composer of her late husband's last work, Song For the Unification of Europe.
  • The Stepford Wives: The town mayor is leading the task of remaking all the women in the city. The mayor himself is a cyborg, created by his wife, who feels ambitious women ruin a marriage.
  • TRON is more of a Downplayed or Implied case. Tron is the big hero, the figurehead of the revolt against Master Control, and the champion of the Game Grid. However, Yori secures a hideout, makes the plans on how to break into the I/O Tower, has the connection to Dumont that allow Tron access, and built their getaway vehicle. However, the lack of acknowledgement probably has less to do with sexism (at least in-story; human concepts of gender may not even apply to their society), but her lack of combat function.

  • A Russian joke goes: Behind every great man there is a great woman saying: "You are not that great, and you're a total douchebag to boot!".
  • In the US Armed Forces, conventional wisdom holds that "Any 2nd Lieutenant can make himself a Colonel, but only his wife can make him a General". When jockeying for position at that level, having a wife who knows how to gently affect the delicate web of social interactions that dictates "the done thing" is a critical asset.

  • In A Brother's Price, it is an open secret that Keifer Porter's marriage to the princesses was engineered by his (all female) family, who prettied him up as much as possible, and allowed him to be alone with the eldest princesses. (Which is usually considered inappropriate). He himself was dumb as bread, and might not even had the cunning to seduce the princesses into marrying him. And his family was also behind his poisoning the Prince Consort (his father in law), something he could never have planned on his own.
  • The Fire Rose: At one point, Rose thinks back to a fellow student who had both courted her and stolen her research paper (instead of doing the coursework himself). She wondered at the time if it would really be so bad to let her husband present her research as his own. It ends up a moot point as the student in question was only interested in her father's money; when the money was lost to a scammer, the student dumped Rose.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • Cersei is the Queen Regent when her son is on the throne, but it's an open secret that she's the one running the show. However, it's subverted the moment he becomes king and goes Off the Rails. It's back to this trope once Joffrey dies and his kind but ineffectual brother, Tommen, ascends to the throne, though.
    • Olenna Redwyne, Mace Tyrell's elderly mother, is strongly implied to be the real brains in Highgarden. After all, she is the one half of the conspiracy to murder Joffrey, which releases her granddaughter Margaery Tyrell from having to marry a psychopath, something that neither Mace nor any other Tyrell knew beforehand. However, Olenna herself admits that her control over Mace is rather weak, as he often does things independently. The extent of her machinations is made much more explicit in the TV show, where Olenna is the one Tywin Lannister respects as an equal, while Mace undergoes Adaptational Dumbass and is viewed with all the relevance of a child.
    • Melisandre and Selyse Florent to Stannis Baratheon, to an extent. While Stannis is no doubt an independent man, his crusade to take the Iron Throne is invigorated by Melisandre, a Priestess of R'hllor and the most powerful member of his Small Council, whom his wife, Selyse, introduced. A large chunk of Stannis' army is disciplined because of their fear or awe of Melisandre, who has demonstrated from time to time her power of foresight.
    • From history:
      • Aegon I probably couldn't have conquered the Seven Kingdoms without the help of his sister-wives, Visenya and Rhaenys. Visenya, in particular, was a Lady of War who never lost a single battle in the conquest and its aftermath, and was the one who created the Kingsguard. She also masterminded the ascension of her son, Maegor I, as king, bypassing Rhaenys' sons.
      • Alysanne Targaryen, wife of Jaehaerys I, was just as important as her husband in the affairs of the state, frequently substituting for him in political matters whenever he was not around. She attracted the Iron Throne brownie points from the smallfolk for the charitable things she did, like ending the practice of the First Night, and charmed the notoriously cold Alaric Stark to agree gifting a plot of land in perpetuity to the Night's Watch.
  • Full Disclosure: Mrs. Bannerman only has one scene in the book but is a calculating political thinker who is deeply supportive of her more impetuous husband and jokingly compares herself to Lady Macbeth.
  • In The Pillars of the Earth, Aliena is driven by ambition to regain her family's power and vengeance against the people who took it (and killed their father), but frequently has to use her meek and timid brother Richard to do it because people won't listen to her alone.
  • In Maupassant's novel Bel Ami, Mme. Forestier actually writes the articles published by her journalist husband and starts doing the same for the Villain Protagonist Duroy after he's hired by her husband and seeks her help. Following M. Forrestier's death, she marries Duroy and continues to do a lot for him behind the scenes, even as he becomes increasingly smug about his own abilities.
  • The Agatha Christie novel Destination Unknown had a chemist whose first wife was murdered. The chemist was later kidnapped by a rich millionaire who wanted a monopoly over the greatest scientific minds in the world (in exchange for giving them a place where their genius would not be limited by lack of funds or political alignment). Unfortunately, it turns out the chemist isn't producing anything because the brilliant discovery (that got him kidnapped in the first place) was actually his wife's work, and he murdered her to take the credit for it.
  • In Loretta Chase's Mr. Impossible, Daphne is a translator of Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Her brother pretends he's the one translating for proprieties' sake. This backfires horribly when he is kidnapped for his translating skills and has absolutely no clue.
  • Courtney Milan's The Countess Conspiracy has a brilliant biologist who, unable to get published as a scientist in her own right, arranges for her less talented male biologist friend to take credit for her discoveries - until he refuses to keep up the pretense.
  • Downplayed in Xanthippic Dialogues, where Xanthippe is a good philosopher in her own right, and her husband discusses things with her a lot. It's just she's so ahead of her time (and Athens were kind of misogynistic), so her legacy doesn't survive.
  • The Vorin church of The Stormlight Archive believes in this setup, with strictly defined gender roles. The ideal Alethi husband would go out and wage war, while his wife would clerk and record for him. Since only women are supposed to be literate, men rely on female relations to ensure their legacy. It's also an Open Secret that while women are supposed to stay out of politics, most noble women just work from behind the scenes instead.
    • It's implied that Queen Navani had to do most of the scutwork for King Gavilar's reign, while he conspired with the Sons of Honor. On the night of his assassination at a treaty feast, she's running the whole show and has to convince him to make some token appearances as king, while he berates her for bothering him.

    Live-Action Television 
  • Warehouse 13: Helena G. Wells is actually the one responsible for writing The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, but she gives her brother the credit so that she can work on her scientific endeavors in peace.
  • In the final episode of Arrested Development it is revealed that Lucille was behind the Bluth Company all along, not George Sr.
  • Remington Steele: Laura Holt opens her own Private Detective agency, but nobody will hire a female detective. She invents a boss "Remington Steele" and puts his name on the company. Then a conman swoops in and pretends to actually be Steele.
  • In the first series of Blackadder it's strongly implied that the queen is actually manipulating things behind the scenes using witchcraft, so she's the one in power rather than her husband Richard IV.
  • Grey's Anatomy:
    • A variation. Meredith comes up with a method to attempt to cure a specific kind of brain tumor with a viral injection. She enlists Derek's help, and the two perform clinical trials on patients who have exhausted all other options. While most of their patients die, they are able to successfully cure one and publish their findings. Derek ends up being the one who gets all the credit for inventing the "Sheppard method". Meredith is pissed at not even being mentioned in the article. Derek chides her for acting emotional and immature, claiming credit doesn't matter. Besides, he is the attending doctor, while she was just a resident. As such, all the risk was his, so it would make sense that the reward would be his as well. After Bailey confronts him about this, she explains that Meredith doesn't really care about her name in the article, only that Derek acknowledge that her help was invaluable. He does it, and the matter is never brought up again.
    • This parallels the Christina/Burke situation. After Burke's gunshot wound and surgery, he loses some fine motor control in his hands. He keeps it a secret from everyone, as he would lose his job and status as the best heart surgeon in the state. Christina offers to be present on all his surgeries and take over for him when his hands start to shake under the guise of him teaching her the methods. Eventually, his hands fully recover, and they prepare to get married. He leaves her at the altar (claiming she's not ready for marriage) and moves out. The next big mention of Burke is him winning a prestigious award, which devastates Christina. She gives the Chief a tirade about how none of what she did for Burke appears to matter now. He wouldn't have won the award if not for her helping him get past his crisis and keeping it quiet, and yet he's the world-famous surgeon, and she's still where she was before he left.
  • Blake's 7. The episode "Power" is derided by fans for its misogynistic overtones involving a literal Battle of the Sexes between a primitive male tribe and a technologically-advanced female tribe that hates men. However, the chief of the male tribe Gunn Sarr is portrayed as strong but somewhat dim-witted with his wife (a captured former leader of the female tribe) implied to be secretly running things behind the scenes.
  • Ferengi women in Star Trek are forbidden from engaging in any sort of business. But in Deep Space Nine Quark's mom is a financial genius who bucks the law and tradition to make a sizeable profit for herself under several aliases. Meanwhile, the Grand Nagus, leader of the empire, is starting to go senile. So when the two of them get romantically involved, it only makes sense that she winds up secretly running the entire Ferengi economy.


  • This is standard doctrine in some Christian denominations. Although The Bible places the responsibility of leadership on men, it also very strongly advocates those leaders having a good woman by their side, to the point where Paul writes that church leaders are required to be married. This follows the model going all the way back to the very first couple: God created Adam and gave him the job of tending the Garden of Eden. Then, He decides that Adam can't do the job by himself and creates Eve as a partner.
  • In Judaism, the classic example is the Wife of Valor from the Book of Proverbs: a strong woman keeping the household while her husband runs the state matters.

  • In the Noël Coward play Nude With Violin, recently deceased modern artist Paul Sorodin admits in his will that he never painted anything - instead he claimed credit for works by two mistresses and a (male) Jamaican Seventh-Day Adventist.

    Video Games 
  • In Dragon Age: Origins, both Queen Anora and her father Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir assert that whilst ruling alongside Cailan Theirin, she was the actual stateswoman. It's actually also the reason why she objects to marrying Alistair if certain conditions haven't been met earlier in the story; she fears that his reign would be very similar to the late King Cailan's.
  • In Deltarune, after you finally team up with Berdly and complete puzzles which he still didn't find the solution, the blue bird will reveal that he only succeeds in school thanks to Noelle's constant help.
  • Undertale has a variation: while Asgore Dreemurr is loved and respected by (almost) all monsters in the underground, according to Gerson, the queen was the brains behind the throne and everything went downhill when she left. She's later revealed to be Toriel, who left the day Asgore declared war on humanity after having lost their biological son and their adopted human child in one night.

    Web Video 
  • CinemaSins: Parodied in the video for Up:
    Jeremy: Behind every great man is a woman pointing and yelling at him to make unkeepable promises.

    Western Animation 
  • The Powerpuff Girls (1998): The Mayor of Townsville had Ms. Sara Bellum who true to her Punny Name was clearly the brains behind the duo.
  • In an episode of The Simpsons Marge discovers that she has a knack for handyman-ing but nobody will hire a female handyman, so she uses Homer as her "beard"; she does the work and he gets the credit.
  • In Inspector Gadget, Gadget's niece Penny is the one who actually solves the cases.

     Real Life 
  • As one might expect, this trope being Truth in Television can be hard to determine. It rarely percolates up to pop-cultural history level, but if you study more detailed biographies, most important men in history (particularly politicians) were either married or otherwise had other important female figures in their lives. These women often served as sounding boards, confidants, and advisers, so how much this might be in play can be anybody's guess. It would not be unreasonable for a number of historical cases to have slipped through the cracks.
  • Augustus and his wife Livia. His title was Princeps, i.e. Just the First Citizen. His wife Livia was addressed as Romana Princeps, which more or less could translate as "First Lady":
    Mary Beard: "One-man rule often brings women into greater prominence, not because they necessarily have any formal power but because, when one person takes key decisions of state in private, anyone with close access to that person is perceived as an influential too. The woman who can whisper in her husband's ear wields more power de facto, rather is often alleged to, than the colleague who can only send official requests and memos. On one occasion, Augustus acknowledged in a letter to the Greek city of Samos that Livia had been putting a good word for it behind the scenes.''
  • In The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, author Jack Weatherford's basic thesis is more/less that this trope writ large was the case for Genghis Khan's entire empire. Mongol women were traditionally expected to manage wealth and run matters while the men were at war (they owned the carts and yurt tents for example) and this was applied through Genghis Khan's daughters and wives of his sons. While all the men were off conquering the world, women held key administrative posts and exercised considerable influence in matters of succession. All perhaps stemming from the circumstances of Genghis Khan's own upbringing where his mother Hoelun was the only reason he lived to adulthood after his minor chieftain father was poisoned and his followers abandoned the family, leaving him with considerable respect for women.
  • After Woodrow Wilson's stroke, his wife Edith is commonly thought to have invoked this trope. The 25th Amendment did not exist yetnote , so there was no mechanism requiring transfer of power from an incapacitated president, and the current VP was considered of lackluster ability anyways in keeping with American Tradition. All she would ever admit to was sorting matters into "Worth bothering Woodrow about" and "Let it wait." And even then, she would summarize documents in the first category so Woodrow wouldn't have to read them himself. And maybe she didn't make decisions as if she were President herself, but by controlling the flow of information to and from the Oval Office, she had a lot of control over Presidential decisions.
  • Wilson's immediate predecessor, William Howard Taft, was another case as Helen "Nellie" Taft was a far more natural politician than her husband who, as a devoted lawyer, dreamed only of sitting on the Supreme Court (which he eventually did do, becoming the only person to ever have served as President and Chief Justice). She once claimed in her youth she the man she would marry would be the President of the United States. Sadly this time it was the wife who suffered the debilitating stroke and never recovered completely.
  • Walter Keane was widely known for his paintings of large-eyed children...that had been painted by his wife Margaret. The Other Wiki states that Walter locked Margaret in a room and forced her to paint pictures that he then sold under his name. After a "paint-off" in court in the 1980s, a federal judge ruled that Margaret had the rights to those paintings.
  • Almost happened to Marie Curie. The original nomination for the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics just named Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. Pierre filed a complaint about the committee leaving Marie's important work out. Marie's name was added to the Nobel Prize award.
  • Author-editor Henri Gauthier employed many ghostwriters. His young bride Gaby wrote racy stories of young lesbians, Hot for Teacher, etc. He would lock her up daily until she'd produced a certain number of pages. "His" first novel by her sold in the millions, affecting fashions, spawning sequels, and a stage play. Gaby ultimately got a divorce, dating both men and women afterward, and worked independently. The novel was Claudine at School, the author was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, and nobody today knows or cares who Gauthier was.
  • A positive example in Queen Caroline of Ansbach, consort of King George II. Though he was the king, government and the prime minister considered her to be smarter and more politically savvy than her husband, who happily relied on her as an advisor, and she is considered one of the most powerful and popular royal consorts to date.
  • Lions are this trope in animal form. Male lions and their majestic manes have been romanticized and symbolized for pretty much all of human history, but by predator standards, they're lazy as sin. It's the females of the pride that do most of the hunting, while the male is a glorified gigolo who rarely helps with prey. As this all-too-accurate meme shows.


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