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Pygmalion Snap Back

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Human nature is a strange, fickle thing. One man's virtues are another's "deadly sins". It should come as no surprise that The Schemer or another morally domineering character would take it upon themselves to "improve" the lot of their fellow man by giving them a Pygmalion Plot makeover.

Rarely is this effort altruistic. Even rarer is the cognizance (much less consent) of the Galatea. If the effort is made for greed, fueling a plot, or out-and-out hubris, the results will never be good...for the Pygmalion.

Changing others to suit your needs or ideals of how they should be is an irreducibly selfish and prideful act, and often completely ignores the wishes and welfare of the recipient. Sure, sometimes the Galatea will actually be objectively made better off... but many didn't ask for it, didn't want it, or (if they did), realize they aren't as happy as they thought they'd be.

These changes will be subject to Snap Back as the character returns to their original self (with perhaps one or two hard-learned habits being retained) and the "benefactor" will get some amount of karmic backlash for their hubris. At the very least, they'll get a Calling the Old Man Out either by the Galatea or a friend of theirs. On the romantic spectrum, the Love Martyr trying to change their abusive hubby this way is in for a nasty surprise.

This is often exaggerated when the Pygmalion character has Green Rocks that can do the above quickly and easily without even a Training Montage. They'll discover the new photo negative personality is most definitely worse than the original, often either obviously evil, full of anger, hyper competent, a Suspiciously Similar Substitute to the Pygmalion, or all of the above. In the end, We Want Our Jerk Back!. Depending on the tone of the episode or show, the story may or may not come with the Aesop of being thankful for what you have.

Compare "Flowers for Algernon" Syndrome, where the change is something Galatea wanted, but is still snapped back. Often done to the Weak-Willed. A common aftereffect from using a Mirror Morality Machine. Frequently a way to enforce Status Quo Is God.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Ah! My Goddess the robot Banpei asks Skuld to give sentience to his beloved automaton girl, only to find out later that she finds his dedication to her creepy and wants nothing to do with him. This doesn't stop him from trying, though.
  • In Beauty Pop, the main character gives the Shrinking Violet a make-over—making her lose her glasses, putting her in trendy clothes and pretty make-up, and giving her a new hair-do. The girl keeps it just long enough so she can taunt a boy who rejected her for being plain. In the next chapter, she put the glasses back on and put her hair in braids again, saying she felt weird otherwise.
  • In the Fullmetal Alchemist manga and Brotherhood anime, Father renders Greed down to a Philosopher's Stone, consumes him, and generates a new Greed entity supposedly wiped clean of the old one's memories and rebellious nature. However after meeting and killing one of the old Greed's friends, the new Greed is overcome with grief and hatred for Father as the memories come pouring back.
  • In JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean, Enrico Pucci's grand scheme involves resetting the entire universe by accelerating time to create a world where humanity is fully aware of what their fate will be, and his adversaries are replaced by alternate versions with none of the original's traits. In the last battle, Emporio manages to kill Pucci, and because the process hadn't been finalized, Pucci's universe is completely undone and the original universe is restored, with the heroes being revived as new selves while Pucci is erased from existence.

    Fan Works 
  • Ah Ain't Got no Ack-cent! revolves around Rarity trying to teach Applejack how to tap back into the Manehatten accent she learned during her time there as a filly. Applejack isn't pleased by all this pressure to conform to others' ideas of "fancy-talkin'", and finally hits her Rage Breaking Point at the EACE, returning to her regular accent. Much to her relief, along with all the other EACE attendees who had been putting on similar airs.
  • Discussed in Foxfire after Li and Jet figure out his original. While Jet isn't worried about what Li could do, he's considerably more concerned about what Prince Zuko might do.
  • Retroactive makes this an Ambiguous Situation — did the victim snap back upon learning they were originally Azula, did they always have that capability hidden inside of them, or were they trying to act like their own conception of Azula and how they'd assumed she would react?

    Films — Live-Action 
  • At the start of 102 Dalmatians, the chiming of Big Ben is explicitly shown to cause this in patients who have received the same hypnotherapy used to treat Cruella's hatred of animals. As you might expect for a story set in London, it's only a matter of time before she reverts back to her usual ways.
  • Babylon (2022): The studio tries to reform Nellie into a respectable actress, which includes dressing her in more conservative and opulent outfits and a teaching her how to speak poshly. But when this is tested at a bourgeois party, Nellie rejects the judgements of the upperclass and makes a defiant and messy scene (including throwing food onto the floor on and on her dress and prominently vomiting on a rich attendee), tanking her chances at respectability.
  • 1928 Soviet propaganda film Storm Over Asia involves the Evil Colonialist British oppressors trying to set up a local Mongol herder as a Puppet King. They dress him in Western formal wear that he is uncomfortable in and Western dress shoes that he has trouble walking in. He hates them for it and winds up leading a rebellion against them.
  • In Trading Places, the Duke Brothers planned to do this to Billy Ray Valentine after their bet ends. However, after he finds out, Valentine tracks down Louis Winthorpe, who was also manipulated by their bet, and they get back at the Dukes together.

  • In Dragon Bones, Fenwick of Hurog wanted to make men out of his sons. His younger, more sensitive son attempted suicide and ran away to become a bard. The older one has brain damage from a violent beating and is a Gentle Giant, made rather more compassionate by the horrible childhood. It's hinted that Fenwick's father was the same kind of person ... well, Fenwick murdered him to get to inherit sooner. Which explains why Ward exaggerates the brain damage to seem harmless - Fenwick seemingly couldn't decide whether he wants to have a strong, ruthless heir, or rather a harmless son who won't murder him. (At the beginning of the novel, he's killed by his horse, Stygian.)
  • In The Dresden Files, this is shown to be the eventual result of any kind of tampering with someone's mind. Eventually, the true personality reasserts itself, leading to at best a backlash like Luccio's reaction to having being mind-warped into loving Harry or a far worse reaction as the psyche shreds itself trying to turn back to normal as is implied to happen to Molly's first boyfriend after she mind-raped him out of using drugs.
  • The Transformers short story "Redemption Center" in the anthology Transformers Legends involves Starscream getting amnesia while in Autobot custody. Optimus refuses to reprogram him, even though it would now be simple because it would be unethical; but he agrees there's no harm in simply showing him what life is like in a society where everyone isn't constantly being a Jerkass to each other like the Decepticons. When 'Screamer's memory finally returns, he chooses to go back to the Decepticons with improved social skills which he figures he can use to better manipulate others to his will and accumulate power—though he's secretly ashamed that that is the only use to which he will put the Autobots' well-intended lessons.
  • in Wings of Fire Jerboa III at first seems like an obedient child to Jerboa I, until she finds the list of all the changes she's made to her over years.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow casts a spell that makes Tara forget an argument they had about her cavalier attitude towards magic. After Tara finds out, she barely lasts a night of going "cold turkey" before trying again, causing Tara to break up with her.
  • The episode of The King of Queens "Jung Frankenstein". Initially, Carrie sends Doug to a therapist to control his eating (which he isn't too thrilled about). When that goes well, she secretly convinces the therapist to get rid of Doug's other vices (that's how she sees it). Needless to say, when he finds out, he's furious. As he puts it by the end of the episode, "Well why don't I strap a suggestion box to my ass? It'll save you the trip."
  • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Fair Haven", Captain Janeway becomes interested in holographic character Michael Sullivan in the "Fair Haven" program and starts tweaking his program to make him more to her taste. Eventually, she gets called on it by Voyager's doctor (also a hologram) and eventually shuts off her access to Michael's program so she won't be tempted to make more "improvements". Possibly played with in that the Pygmalion does not snap back — he's an in-universe fictional character.
  • The major moral conflict in Stargate Atlantis and the "Michael" subplot. Basically, the human heroes of the show find a drug that turns a Wraith human and causes it to lose its memories. However, the turned Wraith must keep taking it or the transformation is reversed. The Wraith they try it on (nicknamed Michael), is pissed when he finds out what they did to him, and becomes one of the most dangerous recurring villains in the series because of it. Both Michael and various members of the heroic cast scream What the Hell, Hero? at the ones who came up with the idea.
  • In one episode of Wilfred, the eponymous dog sets Ryan up with a really disgusting girl for a roommate, as he absolutely loves filth. Eventually, Ryan teaches the girl how to clean up her act, prompting Wilfred to accuse him of "tearing the horn off a unicorn". Ryan naturally thinks that is just because Wilfred wants her filth back, until he sees how utterly stressed, miserable, and out of place she feels and convinces her to go back to her gross lifestyle.

  • The Trope Namer is the stage play, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, adapted into musical form as My Fair Lady. The Pygmalion figure is the incorrigible Henry Higgins, with his grand knowledge of accents, a novelty in turn-of-the-century England, who attempts to change the Cockney flower girl Eliza Dolittle into a well-bred, well-spoken English lady by correcting her common drawl. He succeeds but then discards his creation, much to Eliza's great consternation, which gives rise to the narrative tension in the second half of the play. In the end, while Eliza doesn't quite "snap back" (she doesn't go back to speaking Cockney, but remains well-bred and well-spoken), she does leave Higgins, and Word of God claims that she'll eventually go back to selling flowers, albeit in a respectable shop instead of on the streets.
  • In The Beautiful Galatea, a comic opera by Franz Von Suppe, Venus brings Pygmalion's statue to life as in the original myth. When Pygmalion discovers that Galatea is independent, unfaithful, and generally more than he can handle, he prevails on Venus to turn her back into a statue.

    Western Animation 
  • Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker: Joker captures Tim Drake a.k.a. Robin and gives him a personality makeover in his own image. "J.J." ends up snapping back just enough to kill the Joker, but is still horribly traumatized and needed one year of therapy to recover.
  • In Beast Wars, Megatron managed to switch Rhinox into an evil Predacon. Joke was on Megatron, as Rhinox was far more competent than your typical Starscream and nearly deposed him. He next tried this on Rhinox again in Beast Machines but this time also dialed his intelligence way down to Hulk Speak levels. Worked great until Rhinox got his memories and smarts back, at which point evil Rhinox nearly killed Megatron, again. The full snapback, this time, was posthumous.
  • One episode of Bionic Six sees the good professor wipe his evil brother Doctor Scarab's memory with the best of intentions to reform him and was re-teaching him basic skills... and hard sciences. This new Scarab was more competent, smarter, and managed to hook up with his old goons to do a near successful attack on the Bionic Six. So, this trope works both ways for the good and evil.
  • Chowder: Tired of his stupidity, Mung Daal creates a dish that makes Chowder very smart. You'd expect Chowder's newfound intelligence to become intolerable for Mung Daal... which it does because he comes to realize that he's a cartoon character in a TV show. Using his newfound powers, he changes the show into a boring educational program. Realizing that this change made the viewers cry in disappointment, Chowder yanks his new brain out of his nose and smashes it, effectively deleting the show altogether.
  • In one Dexter's Laboratory, Dee Dee tries to loosen up Dexter, and once converted, he starts destroying his own lab, violently and maniacally. Naturally, Dee Dee is horrified and realizes she just turned her brother into something he isn't. Once Dee Dee tells him this, Dexter solemnly starts repairing his own damage.
  • Duck Dodgers got this makeover thanks to one of Ignacius' inventions. The new Dodgers not only became hyper-competent but even better than everyone else. Then he tried to pull a Pygmalion Plot on the whole Earth because it didn't live up to his expectations. It could easily have been permanent, as it took all the effort from I.Q., Cadet, Marvin and the Queen to get him back to his old self.
  • Ed, Edd n Eddy: In "My Fair Ed", Double D attempts to remodel Eddy and Ed into being polite gentlemen. Ed and Eddy at first seem like they changed by assisting in helping the kids, but it soon becomes worse when they become aggressively nice in their excessively antics. It turns out Ed and Eddy never really reformed; they were faking it for fun.
  • Spoofed and subverted in Family Guy where Stewie is smitten with the new neighbor's daughter, who is named Eliza. Like the Eliza in the book, Family Guy's Eliza speaks with a cockney accent and Stewie devotes himself to get her to look and speak like a proper girl. Eliza keeps up the proper speech at her birthday party until she wets herself and slips back into the cockney accent. However, through her inner thoughts as she writes a letter, she regains her proper speech.
    • Another episode sees the family inherit a mansion, and Brian teaches Peter how to behave like a cultured gentleman so that he won't humiliate himself while socializing with their new neighbors. After Peter blows the family's savings on an expensive vase, Brian and Lois work to bring him back to his senses.
    • In another episode, Peter vows to become smarter and more cultured after Lois calls him an idiot for leaving Stewie on the playground. After he becomes insufferable, they send him on a trip to Tucson, Arizona (they call it the dumbest place on Earth.)
    • In yet another episode, mean popular girl Connie makes Chris popular just to prove that she can make anyone popular. Chris is forced back to his old self after he starts to think that he's too popular to hang around Connie, and Meg and Connie show an embarrassing video of him to the entire school.
  • On The Flintstones, Wilma and Betty managed to completely change Fred and Barney's personalities on at least two occasions. The first time (by enrolling them in "charm school"), they got bored and tried to change them back. The second time (through subliminal messages in their sleep), Fred and Barney found out what their wives had done and took revenge.
  • In Goof Troop, Pete once hypnotized Goofy to turn him into a ruthless car salesman like himself. The problem was that making Goofy amoral didn't make him smarter, and caused Pete no end of trouble, including stealing an armored car to sell on the lot and robbing the policeman who came to investigate. In the end, Pete hypnotizes Goofy back to his old self.
  • Spoofed in Gotham Girls. After Poison Ivy uses pollen that "changes the victim's moral outlook", Batgirl becomes a criminal who joins Ivy and Harley Quinn on a crime spree. Harley, however, quickly feels overworked, and she decides that Batgirl was nicer before the personality shift. Of course, after Harley gives Batgirl the antidote, Batgirl returns to her normal law-abiding criminal-chasing self and immediately captures Harley and Ivy.
  • In the Invader Zim episode "GIR Goes Crazy And Stuff", Zim gets fed up with his sidekick GIR's insane behavior and tinkers with his behavioral modifier to lock him in "serious mode". It succeeds... and then GIR starts questioning Zim's methods because they are stupid and ineffective. In the end, after trying to accomplish the mission goal himself as well as trying to eliminate Zim, he is restored to his usual stupid, non-threatening self.
  • Altruism example! In the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "Green Isn't Your Color", Fluttershy agrees to model some of Rarity's dresses for the photographer Photo Finish, who ends up taking a shine to Fluttershy and doesn't care a slap about the dresses. Rarity spends the entire episode encouraging Fluttershy to go be a rich and famous model because she feels guilty about envying Fluttershy's success and wants to be a supportive friend. Fluttershy, for her part, hates the attention, and they're both bitter that with Photo Finish eating up Fluttershy's time, they can't hang out anymore. Twilight Sparkle spends the entire episode being a confidant to them both, but swore to secrecy for the sake of one another's feelings, and nearly loses her marbles not saying the two sentences that would fix the problem.
  • On one episode of Pinky and the Brain, Brain makes Pinky smarter, hoping that he will now be helpful in his plans for world conquest. But Brain finds that Pinky is too smart, always pointing out the flaws in Brain's plans. To restore balance, Brain applies the same process in reverse and makes himself dumb. Unfortunately, so has Pinky, and the episode ends with this seemingly being irreversible.
  • In The Raccoons episode "Strictly by the Book!", Cedric Sneer is told by both his father Cyril and his friend Bert that he needs to be more confident, and Cyril makes Cedric go a University to learn assertiveness. Cedric returns more confident, but also a stickler for time management and barely able to find the time to spend with his friends and family. Eventually, Cyril, Bert, and the others convince Cedric to go back to his old self.
  • Lampshaded and spoofed repeatedly on The Simpsons:
    • In the episode "Pygmoelian", Moe has plastic surgery to become handsome and lands a role on a soap opera. Near the end of the episode, the wall of a set falls on his face, and in the next scene, we see he's back to normal. The last lines of the episode:
      Moe: There's just one thing I don't get, though. When my face was crushed, why'd it go back to my old face? I mean, shouldn't it have turned into some kind of third face that was different? Heh. Don't make no—(end credits abruptly cut him off)
    • Lisa turns Groundskeeper Wille into a respectable gentleman before he goes back because he misses his old life and is tired of putting up with assholes like Krusty the Klown.
    • Mr. Burns gets amnesia after a failed suicide attempt when his doctor tells him that he's dying. Lisa takes him to his old mansion to prove that he really can change, but then his memories come back. He soon discovers that general hatred for all mankind is literally the only thing keeping him alive.