Ceremonies can be very significant. Swearing in of a president or crowning a king decides who is going to rule a country. A marriage ceremony declares that two people belong together, and an academic degree gives the recipient the right to be officially recognized for their academic competence.
But what if the ceremony is a sham?
The president was never elected, the king is just trying to avert attention from the fact that brute force is what's really keeping him in power, the academic degree was bought from a fake university, and so on.
Few dictators dare to openly say Screw the Rules, I Make Them!. No, they need an excuse for wielding power over everyone. This is why the "President" of the People's Republic of Tyranny does not admit he is a tyrant, but instead keeps up the pretense that citizens are voting for him in election: democracy is a more legitimate government. It doesn't matter how flimsy the excuse is, as long as people are sufficiently uneducated or scared to buy it.
Not restricted to political power, this trope includes any case when a ceremony or ritual in itself gives power, privilege or recognition in society while the true power dynamic is obfuscated. Not limited to successful attempts, this trope includes exposed and failed attempts to gain or maintain the status from a Sham Ceremony.
Sham Wedding is a subtrope.
- In one old Robin Hood comic, the Norman villain kidnaps a lady and forces her to marry him. When the heroes rescue her, she seems to be more upset about the discovery that the priest wasn't a real priest than about the fact that she almost got raped. A justified reaction, considering that in her society a unmarried rape-victim would be a social outcast.
- In With Strings Attached, quite possibly the little religious display that the four watch when they attend dinner with the Idri'en Tagen for the first time. After all, the very first person they met in the world told them that the Ketafan religion was fake and was imposed on the populace as a way to establish the Idris' legitimacy, and while a number of the Idris take the display seriously, the Idri-Head Grynun clearly does not.
- Debated in the page quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The peasants didn't get to vote for their king, so why should they obey him? Come see the violence inherent in the system! In other words, see the concept of Divine Right crumble into the dictatorship it really is.
- In The Princess Bride, a Forced Wedding turns into this when the villain, stressed out by the arrival of the Big Damn Heroes, rushes the priest to finish the ceremony without wasting time on pesky details such as the "I do" part.
- Spaceballs starts and ends with a marriage ceremony that ZigZags between a pure sham, the real thing and an in-between in the form of an Arranged Marriage bordering on forced marriage. It was all Played for Laughs, but the part that makes it fit this trope is when the princess is trying to escape the forced marriage and this escape is presented as if it was an official part of the ceremony.
- German philosopher Oswald Spengler claimed in The Decline of the West that Monarchy is this (necessarily) in the age of democracy - and parliamentarianism in the age of The Empire, like the late Roman republic.
- The Stainless Steel Rat for President. A planetary dictator has regular rigged elections to maintain the facade that he's a democratically elected President-for-Life. The protagonist decides to use this system against him by rigging the election in his own favour.
- The protagonist of Infinity Beach has the job of fundraising for her agency. She comes up with the idea of inventing an award to present to a generous benefactor so he'll stay friendly. Later after escaping First Contact with an apparently hostile alien species that the government wants to keep quiet about, she's rewarded with an award that she can't remember having heard of before...
- Brother Cadfael: In "The Hermit of Luton Forest", Richard and his fiancée-to-be go along with their Arranged Marriage (he's ten) once he learns from Hyacinth that it won't be legally binding since the titular hermit isn't a priest but a traitor in hiding.
- Inverted in the first installment of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Count Olaf "marries" Violet in a half-baked theater production; but he orchestrates this such that it would legally qualify as a real marriage, so he can claim her deceased parents' fortune. She outwits him by signing the contract with her left hand, making it invalid.
- A Storm of Swords: The Tully-Frey wedding (aka, the "Red Wedding"), which was announced to bring two Feuding Families together, but turned out to be a trap for one to wipe out the other once and for all. The marriage between Roslin and Edmure itself is valid.
- This is how Jeff got his undergraduate degree in Community - it's also why he has to go to community college.
Duncan: I thought you had a Bachelors from Columbia.
Jeff: Now I have to get one from America, and it can't be an e-mail attachment.
- His law degree was actually obtained legitimately even though he never took the required pre-law courses. Jeff is really smart but lazy.
- Wiseguy. When Vinnie Terranova becomes a made man, the older mafiosi insist on the traditional ceremony, only to get into an argument over how it's performed.
- World of Warcraft has many of these, since every single character in this online world is treated like The Chosen One and the player is supposed to pretend that all other players (as well as his own alternate characters) are The Hero of Another Story in spite of doing the exact same quests.
- Perhaps most noteworthy is when the character gets declared king or queen of the Ogres. Since the quest is a group quest and was quite popular back in its days, it rarely took long until a new batch of five new kings & queens was publicly announced by the same old ogre.
- Chrono Trigger: At the beginning of the game, the player is put on trial after Marle's disappearance and will likely be surprised to learn of the subversion of Welcome to Corneria (several witnesses come forth, people you did or didn't do favors for or saw the typical Kleptomaniac Hero behavior). However, in the end Crono is thrown into prison anyway as the Chancellor is secretly a fiend descended from the one you're going to defeat a while later and thus is dead set against you. Much later, the situation is repeated with the King on trial and the same Chancellor, but this time the Chancellor is revealed and defeated.
- In The Order of the Stick, the characters are made to stand trial, to be judged by an angel "Of Pure Law And Good". It's all fake, however, designed to trick an order of paladins. Even the charges against them were made in bad faith and just a ploy to force them to come to Azure City so they could be blackmailed into working for the Paladins' leader on a job which would violate an oath all the Paladins have taken.
- Homestuck: In an alternate timeline, Guy Fieri and the Juggalo Brothers betray humanity, side with the Troll Queen Betty Crocker, and the former swears the latter into the presidency. The disgusting things they do to and around the book make it very clear to the rest of humanity that they're all screwed.
- On Adventure Time, the Ice King is always kidnapping princesses to be his wives. One episode has him getting married to one who appears to be willing, but on closer inspection, Finn discovers that he had cursed her into marrying him.
- On The Simpsons, Troy McClure marries Selma to dispel rumors that he had been doing inappropriate things with fish and jumpstart his floundering career. Selma soon finds out that the marriage is a sham, but she's married and living "the good life," so she doesn't mind. Until Troy wants to have a baby with Selma (or rather has to have a baby in order to co-star on Rainer Wolfcastle's latest movie); she reasons that while "they're not hurting anybody" living a sham marriage, she can't bring a baby into a loveless marriage, and divorces him.
- Transformers: The Movie: After leaving Megatron for dead, Starscream planned on having an Awesome Moment of Crowning when he finally assumed the role of Decepticon Leader. Unfortunately, Galvatron was not impressed.
Galvatron: Coronation, Starscream? This is bad comedy.
- The famous Sokal Hoax.The physicist Alan Sokal once had a bullshit article published in a the postmodernist journal Social Text, which for reasons that seemed good at the time, was not peer-reviewed. The article was named "Transgressing The Boundaries: Towards A Transformative Hermaneutics Of Quantum Gravity", and it was designed to point out a number of flaws with '90s postmodernism's somewhat peculiar and quite often hostile take on modern natural science. That he was able to publish an article that by his own admission was something he crapped out relatively quickly by simply using as many hip and pretentious polysyllabic words as he could was used by him as evidence that the whole "science wars"—'90s High Postmodernism's bizarre-in-retrospect quarrel with the natural sciences—was at best a highly questionable enterprise.