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Breaking the Glass Ceiling

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Many ranks, awards, or other achievements in life have traditionally been reserved for people of a privileged gender, race, or other such category. This trope is about characters from a non-favored group who break through such "ceilings" - for example, the first woman to join a previously all-male military unit, or the first black guy on the town council. If they've already achieved their feat, it can be used to characterise them as tough, determined, and/or ambitious (depending on what they achieved and how they did it). If they're still aspiring, it can be used to give them motivation and drive the plot.

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Characters like this may have to go through a Jackie Robinson Story in which they face hostility from people who don't believe they should be there. This might involve a Double Standard which requires them to work twice as hard to prove themselves, or they may have to conspicuously save the day in an All of the Other Reindeer moment. Their talents may be squandered on menial jobs ("You, Get Me Coffee") and they'll often be Eating Lunch Alone. Even if the people in charge actually want the ceiling broken, other people may still mutter that the ceiling-breaker only succeeded thanks to Political Correctness Gone Mad.

Alternatively, they may bypass the Jackie Robinson route of proving themselves and find a different means to break the ceiling. People who find their advancement unjustly blocked may not care about the rules - they may try Loophole Abuse, or they may be in a position to simply say "Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!" (via Nepotism or Sleeping Their Way to the Top) — if so, Never a Self-Made Woman may apply. If their Ambition Is Evil, they could even obtain their breakthrough via Klingon Promotion. A more subtle approach is to sneak around the ceiling by pretending to be part of the group it doesn't apply to - for example, by employing Sweet Polly Oliver.

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Even when characters who break a ceiling are successful and celebrated, however, they're still forging a new path by themselves and may be a Fish out of Water in ways that their colleagues don't understand. If ceiling-breaking characters are Famed In-Story and held up as examples for others to follow, they may be glad to know that they're inspiring people and making it easier for the next generation, but others will find the pressure unwelcome and just want to be treated normally. And just because an individual is accepted, it doesn't mean the overall prejudice is gone: bigots may simply have created a Bigotry Exception by ignoring the ceiling-breaker's point of difference ("You Know I'm Black, Right?") or judging them A Credit to Their Race. Occasionally, ceiling-breaking characters will be called a Category Traitor by members of their own group, having "joined the system" and become "tame". These accusations may even be right - the successful character may be a Boomerang Bigot or The Quisling, and not rocking the boat may be a condition of their acceptance.

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May involve Overly Narrow Superlative. See also Stay in the Kitchen, "Billy Elliot" Plot, You Go, Girl!, and The Smurfette Principle. Not to be confused with breaking literal glass ceilings.


Examples:

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    Advertising 
  • In an ad for a brand of chips called Grain Waves, a grain becomes the first of his kind to grow up to be a chip instead of bread or porridge like his family.

    Anime & Manga 
  • In Saiunkoku Monogatari, Shuurei wants to become a government administrator, but the required Imperial Examinations can only be taken by men. She has a roundabout route of achieving this goal, becoming a consort (and unofficial tutor and advisor) to the Emperor first.

    Comic Books 
  • In Top 10, Joe Pi is the first officer from the Ninth Parallel (an all-robot world) to serve in the Tenth Precinct. Since Neopolis still has... issues with its robot population, he initially faces a lot of hostility with his fellow officers.
  • Wonder Woman: Suzan Patience becomes the first woman to become a prison warden in the US.

     Fan Works 

    Film - Animated 
  • Zootopia has Judy Hopps, who's the first bunny to become a police officer in Zootopia (a force normally comprised of megafauna and/or predators). As a result, people initially don't take her seriously.
  • In Mulan, Mulan at the end is asked by the Emperor to join his Council. It's downplayed because she refuses the offer because she wants to go home, but even the job offer itself is groundbreaking because up until now the Council was reserved for men.

    Film - Live Action 
  • G.I. Jane is about the first woman to join the the U.S. Navy Combined Reconnaissance Teamnote . It's part of a program to test the viability of allowing more, but plenty of people don't want her to succeed. Besides the brutal nature of the training itself, she has to deal with things such as accusations of being a lesbian (this being in the days when you weren't allowed to openly be so in the US military). Even things which seem like support are not actually support - she receives preferential treatment in her physical training until she rejects it on the grounds that it undermines the point she's there to prove (and also that it makes everyone resent her).
  • In Down Periscope, Lt. Emily Lake is the first woman to serve on a submarine of the United States Navy. Commander Dodge, not having been informed in advance, initially thinks that his crew have hired a stripper, and they do indeed treat her mostly as eye candy to start with (which leads them to sabotage her laundry to make her uniform more revealing). Her lack of real-world experience (and lack of confidence) doesn't help her in establishing her credentials, but when a particularly tricky situation calls for her specialist training, she rises to the occasion and proves her skill as a dive officer.
  • Courage Under Fire is all about whether or not Captain Walden, an army helicopter pilot, should be the the first woman awarded the Medal of Honor (posthumously, in this case). Surviving members of the unit paint very different pictures of her, ranging from heroic to cowardly - in the end, the latter claim is revealed to be a cover-up of the accusers' own misdeeds and the medal is awarded. (In real life, Mary Walker had already became the first female recipient of the Medal of Honor in 1865, although she was a surgeon rather than a combatant.)
  • In Bright, Nick Jakoby is the first orc police officer in the Los Angeles Police Department, in an alternate Earth where orcs and elves live alongside regular humans. Interspecies tensions make this difficult for him: some orcs accuse him of being a Category Traitor, while many of his fellow officers distrust him.
  • Subverted in Sky High (2005), the main character, Will Stronghold, goes to a Superhero School, and when is shown that he doesn't have any superpowers he is sent to the "Hero Support Class" (Sidekicks), in the middle of the movie he actually develop superpowers, and his friends say that he now is opening new roads by being a superstrong sidekick, then he is informed that he was transfered to the superheroes class.
  • Django Unchained: Dr. Schultz, in his plan to get Django's lover back from Calvin Candie's house, suggests Django to pretend to be a black slaver (the story is set in Deep South before the American Civil War, so finding a black man in that role would have been decidedly unusual).
  • In Hairspray, Inez Stubbs becomes the first black female to win Miss Teenage Hairspray, thus integrating the Corny Collins Show.

    Literature 
  • From Discworld:
    • Equal Rites features Eskarina, a girl who wants to be a wizard and not a witch. Both witches and wizards would mostly prefer that this not occur, but she becomes the first female student at the wizards' Unseen University anyway. Based on her eventual reappearance in I Shall Wear Midnight, she did well for herself - but Unseen University still seems to be a male institution despite having made an exception for her.
    • Men at Arms sees the Night Watch admit three new officers, each of whom is a "first": Cuddy (first dwarf), Detritus (first troll), and Angua (first woman and also first werewolf). They are explicitly added to the Watch in the name of diversity, since the city is itself increasingly diverse, but Commander Vimes doesn't approve (although his prejudices add up to disliking everyone equally, and he's also annoyed at having the decision pushed on him rather than being allowed to decide for himself).
    • In Feet of Clay, Dorfl is not only the first golem to join the Watch, he's also the first to be able to choose to do so, as Carrot freed him from his Servant Race status by including his bill of sale along with his chem. What is more important to the rest of the world is that he's the first ever golem to have a voice, as he was rebuilt with a mouth. The religious community are particularly unhappy with it, as their usual trump-card argument is entirely ineffective on a golem made of clay.
    • In Thud!, Sally is the first vampire in the watch, but she gets in due to the Temperance League and Vetinari forcing her on Vimes (despite his well-known aversion to vampires). When he discovers she's a spy for the Low King, he keeps her on the force because she is useful, but is happy that this means he won't have any more people forced on him).
  • In Star Wars Legends, the Empire had a strong preference towards people who were both human and male. However, there were people who managed to overcome this prejudice and achieve high rank anyway.
    • One example is Thrawn (appearing in The Thrawn Trilogy, the stand-alone book Thrawn, and elsewhere). As a non-human, he faced a lot of prejudice in his early service with the Empire. However, he was enough of a Magnificent Bastard to get himself all the way to the rank of Grand Admiral.
    • The Jedi Academy Trilogy introduced Natasi Daala, who would not have achieved her rank except for the fact that she was sleeping with Grand Moff Tarkin. There seem to be differing opinions as to whether his favouritism promoted her beyond her abilities or simply allowed her to claim her rightful due - but deservedly or not, she was the first woman to make admiral in the Imperial fleet.
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga, Duv Galeni is the first Komarran member of ImpSec, the security and intelligence service of the Barrayaran Empire, which conquered his home planet. He gets trouble from both sides - some Komarrans naturally view him as a traitor and a quisling (not least his own militant father), while many Barrayarans don't trust him and are waiting for him to slip up. However, he believes that integration and cooperation between Kommarr and Barrayar is the only way good forward for either of them, and that putting up with the problems will make things easier for those who follow after him.
  • In the Tortall Universe, Alanna becomes the first female knight, but this isn't publicly known until after she's done it, because she disguised herself as a boy. As a result of Alanna's achievement, however, Kel is then able to become the first girl to train openly (and she insists on wearing dresses at dinner to ensure people don't forget that she's a girl).
  • In Robyn Bennis's Signal Airship series, Josette Dupre becomes the first woman to command an airship in Garnia's Air Signal Corp. The army began accepting women mainly due to manpower shortages, but they're technically only auxiliary officers (so can't command "real" officers) and are supposed to be dropped off before their airships enter combat (which is almost never practical). Josette, contrary to regulations, took command of a damaged airship and did well enough to get appointed to full command of new one, but the general forced to appoint her is strongly hostile (since her heroics saved the day when his battle plans couldn't). He attempts to sabotage her career.
  • Artemis Fowl: During a heated discussion with Commander Root, Holly accuses his endless complaints and dressing-downs of being solely based on the fact that she's female. He admits that this is so... but for an entirely opposite reason: As there are two females in the LEP Recon (and one is a bimbo limited to announcements who only got a job because she's descended from one of the fairies' kings), she has to be better than all others so more women will think of joining.
  • Honorverse: Lieutenant Abigail Owens is the first native-born Grayson female to ever hold military rank. Though she's more a case of sidestepping the ceiling — while she's officially part of the Grayson Space Navy, she went to Manticore's military academy and so far in the novels has been serving exclusively on Manticoran ships. Officially this is to let her gain experience before she eventually moves back to the GSN, but there's a certain amount of "make sure her eventual GSN superiors can't just shove her off into a more 'appropriate' female posting" going on as well.
  • The protagonist of The Helmsman Saga is the first Carescian to finish the Helmsman Academy by virtue of the Lowered Recruiting Standards law.
  • In Rex Stout's 1937 mystery The Hand In The Glove, a female private detective is not considered completely outrageous, but when two women try to start their own agency without a man in charge, it becomes a huge scandal, and the Bonner & Raffrey agency is criticized and mocked in the press.
  • In Red Storm Rising, there's Vice Admiral Richard Pipes, who is described as "the first black submariner to make three-star rank, a man who had paid his dues with performance as he'd climbed up the ladder in what had traditionally been a whites-only profession."
  • The Dreamblood Duology: Hanani is the first woman to be allowed to join the Sharers of Hananja because of her talent for Healing magic and is very aware of it. She binds her breasts and wears a male uniform at first, but realizes she's both setting a precedent and making herself miserable in an effort to placate people who still disapprove of her, gains some self-confidence, and switches back to women's clothing.
  • In The Berenstain Bears book "The Female Fullback", Bertha becomes the first girl to be on the school's soccer team.
  • The Black Magician Trilogy: Sonea is the first non-aristocrat to be accepted into Imardin's Wizarding School, solely because her innate magic is vastly too strong to risk leaving untrained. She finds herself mostly ostracized as a "slum girl" and obsessively dedicates herself to becoming as skilled as she is powerful, to make clear that she's earned her place there.
  • The Goblin Emperor : Kiru Athmaza is the first woman ever to become one of the Emperor's Nohecharei, his personal bodyguards.
  • In Nickolai Of The North, Nickolai's mother Ella becomes the first woman to compete in the elf kingdom's sleigh races and the first woman to win them. Other elves are skeptical about her at first, but when she wins, they cheer for her heartily.
  • In Warrior Cats, the Clans believe that only Clanborn cats make good warriors, and taunt Fireheart for having been born a kittypet (pet owned by humans), but he eventually becomes the first kittypet-born Clan leader in the Clans' memory. In the second series, Mothwing becomes the first rogue-born medicine cat (The Medic / her Clan's spiritual leader), and Firestar was even used as an example when cats protested her becoming a warrior: "If a kittypet can become a Clan leader, why should rogues not be welcome as warriors?"

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Ray Holt is the first openly gay man to reach the rank of police captain. While the fact that he's both gay and black has exposed him to a fair bit of prejudice, his "rarity value" can still cause him problems even when people aren't being hostile — his long, unwanted spell in Public Relations was at least partly because the department thought he was a good way to show off their strides towards diversity.
  • Anita Van Buren in Law & Order, similarly, is one of the first black women to make Lieutenant in the NYPD. She constantly has to battle with her superiors, especially after she files a discrimination lawsuit when a less-qualified white woman is promoted instead of her. Her detectives are assigned to menial and humiliating tasks, and she's given less support on high-profile investigations as retribution. At one point, her bosses tell her outright if she wants more resources for her squad she would have to resign as their commander.
  • Star Trek franchise (in order of internal chronology):
    • Star Trek: Enterprise: T'Pol is the first Vulcan to serve for any length of time on a human vessel (Jossing decades of Fanon that Spock was.) Another example is when Trip becomes, for lack of a better word, pregnant by an alien, he becomes not only the first recorded man to get pregnant, but the first human to get pregnant by a non-human.
    • Star Trek: Discovery: Saru is the first Kelpian in Starfleet.
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation: Worf is the first Klingon in Starfleet (he was brought up by humans).
    • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Nog becomes the first Ferengi in Starfleet, uniquely after having been a recurring non-military character for a long time.
  • Parodied on Saturday Night Live during the Baseball Strike of 1994 and 1995. They had a series of shorts shot as a documentary on Replacement Baseball. (To those who don't remember, that was when the teams brought in new players to replace the striking ones.) One short shows the breaking of the color barrier... a few minutes after they started hiring players. The gender barrier fell a few minutes later.
  • In Trust, one of the things that motivates Paul Getty III's kidnappers is that their boss is planning to have his son Francesco become the first boy from their village to go to university.
  • In Necessary Roughness, Rex Evans becomes the first openly-gay football player in the NFL (this was before Michael Sam came to prominence in real life). Fortunately, his buddy TK supports him, if only because TK is an Attention Whore who realizes that being an ally will boost his profile.
  • On Mad Men, Peggy is the first female copy writer. She starts out simply feeding ideas to the male copywriters who then present the ideas as their own. During this time, she's paid as a secretary (a much lower salary) and expected to complete all of her secretarial work during billing hours and do copy writing in her free time. Later, she is promoted to junior copywriter, even though there are no male junior copywriters. Eventually, she is made a fully copywriter.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • In WWE, there have been a few firsts in the company:
    • Bayley and Sasha Banks were the first women to compete in the main event of a WWE pay-per-view at NXT Takeover: Respect in 2015.
    • A year later, Sasha Banks faced Charlotte in the first ever women's hell in a cell match, which also main evented the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view.
    • Darren Young became the first openly gay WWE superstar to compete in the WWE.
    • In 1998, Jacqueline became the first African-American female to win the WWE Women's Championship, and in 2016, she became the first African-American woman to be inducted to the WWE hall of fame.
    • Chyna became the first woman to hold the Intercontinental Championship in October 1999. Months before, she was the first of three women in WWE history to compete in the Royal Rumble match. Beth Phoenix (in 2010) and Kharma (in 2012) were the second and third females respectively.
    • In a 2003 episode of 'Monday Night Raw', Lita faced Victoria in the first ever women's steel cage match.
    • Carmella won the first ever women's Money in the Bank Ladder match, in which the winner is guaranteed a title shot for the Women's Championship anytime that she wants. James Ellsworth actually won it for her.
    • The 2018 edition of the Royal Rumble featured the first ever Women's Royal Rumble Match.
  • CHIKARA lives and breathes this trope.
    • The main event of CHIKARA Cibernetico: The Animated Series, November 12, 2011, was the Team Hallowickednote -Team Donstnote  Torneo Cibernetico (an 8-on-8 elimination match that can have only person left.) Sara Del Rey became the first woman to win a Torneo Cibernetico, including eliminating half of the rudo team by herself, including eliminating the BDK's monster Tursas.
    • During the "Pre-Show-A-Go-Go" before the 2014 Season Finale iPPV Tomorrow Never Dies on December 6, 2014, Heidi Lovelace defeated Missile Assault Ant in the final of the CHIKARA Young Lions Cup Tournament, making her the first female Young Lions Cup Champion. She would go on to be the second-longest reigning YLC Champion after the inaugural Champion Hallowicked.
    • At the 2015 Season Finale Top Banana on December 5, 2015, Crown and Court (Princess Kimberlee/Jervis Cottonbelly/Los Ice Creams (Ice Cream Jr. and El Hijo del Ice Cream) defeated The Wrecking Crew (Max Smashmaster/Blaster ]McMassive/Flex Rumblecrunch/Jaka) in the finals of the season-long Challenge of the Immortals tournament when Kimberlee powerbombed McMassive off the top and pinned him with the Alligator Clutch. This gave all four Crown and Court members the three points needed to challenge for either the CHIKARA Grand Championship or the CHIKARA Campeonatos de Parejas (tag team titles). The main event was CHIKARA Grand Champion Hallowicked successfully defending the title against former Champions Eddie Kingston and Icarus in a Triple Threat Match. After the match, Kimberlee ran to the ring and cashed in her title shot and proceeded to defeat Hallowicked for the title in under three minutes. Because Heidi was still the Young Lions Cup Champion at the time, this was the first time in a non-women's promotion that both singles titles were held by women.
    • At King of Trios 2016 Night III, September 4, 2016, Team Sendai Girls (Cassandra Miyagi, Dash Chisako and Meiko Satomura) defeated Team JWPnote  (Command Bolshoi, Hanako Nakamori and Manami Katsu) in the finals to become the first ever Queen of Trios. The weekend also produced the documentary CHIKARA: Wrestling Equality, where CHIKARA promoter Mike Quackenbush talks about how their goal is to go beyond mere "girl power" to actual gender equality. The promotion scrapped gender boundaries back in 2003.
    • At The Eleventh Hour, May 6, 2017, Solo Darling eliminated The Whisper to win the third Infinite Gauntlet match, which is CHIKARA's version of the Royal Rumble.
  • At KBB Civil War Elimination, March 31, 2017, Su Yung and Hell Monkey won the KBB Double Danger Tandem Titles, making Su the second regular wrestler, after Kota Ibushi, who held the KBB Hashtag Title for less than a day, and the first woman to hold a KBB Title, and she won it on the last day of Women's History Month.
  • Tessa Blanchard was the only woman to hold the EWA Heavyweight Title and the EWA Florida Heavyweight Title. The EWA Heavyweight Title was also held by legends including Ricky Morton, The Barbarian, Ivan Koloff, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Buddy Landel and Jimmy Valiant. The EWA Florida Heavyweight Title was also held by Blackjack Mulligan. Her match with Sami Callihan at Impact Wrestling Slammiversary XVII was the first intergender match to main event a national PPV. She didn't win that one, but, she has that place in history.

    Video Games 
  • In Sleeping Dogs, "Broken Nose" Jiang became the only female Red Pole in the Sun On Yee. She didn't so much prove herself to her male rivals as kill enough of them that they stopped arguing (which is a kind of proof, true).
  • In Mass Effect, Commander Shepard becomes the first human Spectre. Since the Spectres are considered the sharp end of the Citadel Council's authority, and the Council is basically the center of the political world, humanity had been pushing for a presence in the Spectres for some time (and had prepared Shepard as a likely candidate).

    Western Animation 
  • An episode of Futurama has Leela become the first female pitcher in the professional blernsball league - but she's not actually any good at it, having been included because someone thought it would be funny. However, her poor performance has the unexpected effect of encouraging other women to get into the game, because they don't want her to be the last word on women in the sport.
  • In Jane and the Dragon, the titlecharacter is in training to become the kingdom's first female knight (having won the right to train as a squire by rescuing a prince from a dragon).
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: After fighting an Old Master for the right, Katara becomes the first woman that the Northern Water Tribe trains in combat waterbending; until then, women were limited to being healers. This is news to Katara, who is from the Southern Water Tribe and is disgusted by the North's sexism.
  • In The Legend of Korra, Suyin calls Korra the first Avatar to learn metalbending. Not exactly a huge accomplishment, given that metalbending was invented seven decades prior and it's a sufficiently common skill among earthbenders that there's an entire city of them, but neither her predecessor Aang or the countless Avatars before them knew it was possible — metalbending was only invented toward the end of Aang's quest by Toph Bei Fong, an incredibly gifted earthbender.

    Real Life 


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