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 That's right, Miss Lang, it was him all the time! He just combed his hair and stuck on a pair of glasses! Ha ha ha! What a great gag!

Prankster & Toyman, after exposing Superman as Clark Kent


Superheroes often have a Secret Identity which they conceal from the world, or perhaps just secretly engage in heroics. They do it for lots of reasons- maybe to keep themselves or their loved ones safe, and so they keep them willfully ignorant. But when you do that, you’re likely to run into some complications. Sooner or later, friends, family and dates are going to wonder why you keep running out on them. You’ll find yourself missing school and work, since crime doesn’t exactly let you keep regular hours. Eventually, you might found your civilian identity held captive, with no way for the 'hero' to show up. So it can be tough to keep that secret identity, well... secret.

So for most heroes, they’ll eventually run into The Unmasking. Something will happen. Maybe the hero will be forced to tell, due to a Super Registration Act. Maybe they’ll choose to tell a loved one. Maybe it’ll be something as embarrassing as someone seeing them change into their costume. Either way, the results are the same - their secret is no longer a secret.

Responses can be varied. If it’s a friend or loved one who discovers it, they’ll usually be accepting and become SecretKeepers. However, it's equally likely that they'll be angry or scared, and either tell the hero to stop putting himself in danger or, if his powers are freaky, ask if they’ve tried being normal. If someone antagonistic finds out, expect bad things, ranging from blackmail to making the hero’s life a living hell. If the outing is public, then there will most likely be a lot of controversy, with people badgering the newly-exposed civilian persona for both good and bad reasons.

Writers tend to introduce this element to prevent stories from becoming too old. There are only so many times you can keep people from finding out the secret identity before the audience begins to get tired of it, and letting either friends or enemies know the truth allows for new plots and character interactions. On the negative side, people might complain They Changed It, Now It Sucks. If keeping the identity completely secret is somehow intrinsic to the story’s formula, expect this to show up for a What If episode, or to at least have the Reset Button firmly pressed by the end of the tale, usually thanks to Laser-Guided Amnesia.

Compare The Reveal, where the audience is the group suddenly in on the secret. People might wonder why it doesn’t happen to heroes who engage in Clark Kenting, and have a Paper-Thin Disguise. Those most likely to be let in on it are romantic interests and the Secret-Chaser. If the identity is connected to an alternate world or conspiracy, this might result in a Broken Masquerade.

See also Dramatic Unmask, Emerging From the Shadows.

Examples of The Unmasking include:

  • Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?:Alan Moore coined the term, to describe how Superman's identity was exposed. Prankster and Toyman unmask the hero in front of the Daily Planet staff by sending Clark Kent Superman action figures that disintegrate his glasses and the suit he wears over his costume.
  • Batman's identity had been exposed in the Backstory of Kingdom Come leading to Two-Face and Bane having destroyed the mansion. Bruce still operates out of the Batcave.
  • Vance Astrovik of the New Warriors had his Secret Identity revealed to the public when he was put on trial.
  • Watchmen, being a Deconstruction of Superhero tropes, has several examples:
    • In the setting's Backstory, the superheroine Silhouette had her identity revealed and was expelled from the Minutemen because she was a lesbian. A villain seeking revenge murdered her and her girlfriend six weeks later.
    • Ozymandias and the original Nite Owl came public voluntarily. The former runs a highly successful company and the latter wrote a book about his adventures.
    • The true identity of Dr. Manhattan was made public after the death of his father, but since he had already cut all ties to his old life, this didn't change much.
    • In the present, the Comedian's true identity is made public after his death and Rorschach's identity is made public after his arrest.
  • In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman's identity as Bruce Wayne is revealed after Batman fakes his death in a fight with Superman.
  • Parodied in The Simpsons Comics/Radioactive Man crossover, "When Bongos Collide". The dim-witted Radioactive Man, whom Bart has materialized from his comic into the "real world", says in Barts hearing "...or my name isn't Claude Kane III!...Uh, which it isn't, of course." Bart resists the urge to tell him he already knows his secret identity from the comics.
  • In the "Born Again" Story Arc of Daredevil, the Kingpin learns Daredevil's identity and tries to destroy his life, but later on does nothing about it. Finally, in the "Out" storyline, a down-on-his-luck federal agent sells Daredevil's identity to the newspapers for some cash. Instead of admitting he is Daredevil, though, Matt Murdock instead sues the newspapers for libel.
  • Astro City: Crackerjack (in costume) accidentally "unmasks" himself when his apartment building catches fire.

 Oh no--! My record collection!

    • Also, the Silver Agent's identity is revealed when he is convicted of murder. His real name is included on the memorial statue erected after he is executed and exonerated, in that order.
  • Darkwing Duck accidentally revealed that he was Drake Mallard at his high school reunion. He later hypnotized The Masquerade back into place.
    • A Disney Adventures comic featured a villain who became The Dreaded among superheroes because of his knack at unmasking them. All of his victims retired in shame. When he targets Darkwing, however, Gosalyn reminds them all why they became heroes in the first place, and they team up to take him down.
  • Happened once a season in Sailor Moon. Except for the fourth, because all the main characters knew each other's identities at that point.
    • Frankly, how ANYONE remains oblivious to thier identities when they maintain the same features and hairstyles owes Clark Kent's glasses a fiver...
  • Iron Man ends with Tony Stark revealing his identity at a press conference originally intended to do the opposite.
  • In the Grand Finale of Power Rangers in Space, all the Rangers reveal their civilian identities to the public. Power Rangers Time Force has Wes get his visor cracked while attacking a monster and his dad susses out his identity.
  • In seasons one and two of Heroes, Claire Bennet was hunted by her adoptive father's Company, for the purpose of becoming the subject of brutal biological experiments due to her ability.
    • Which makes no sense, by the way, since the Company already had another subject prisoner for several decades with identical abilities.
      • Maybe they wanted a backup?
      • Or a larger reference pool?
      • Her adoptive father might not have known all the details about Adam Monroe. Just because Mr. Bennett said they'd experiment on her doesn't mean it's true, he's a Consummate Liar; but it still could have been a good idea to keep her away from them. The company had a number of interested, including For Science!, Money, Dear Boy, The World Is Not Ready and For the Evulz.
    • In the series' final scene she unmasks herself to the world.
  • Years ago, Ms. Might of the Whateley Universe had her husband killed, her children terrorized, and her house destroyed when an old enemy learned her secret identity. Now that she's Lady Astarte and the headmistress of Whateley Academy, she's a real stickler on the 'secret identity' and 'no threatening students' families' rules.
  • Danny did this in the Grand Finale of Danny Phantom on the urgings of his sister and his parents. Now the whole goddamn world knows who he is. Fans were mixed.
  • Ben 10: Ultimate Alien, the third in a continuity of shows, starts the first episode with this trope.
  • Right at the end of a Bananaman episode, Bananaman's power runs out and he turns back into Eric right in front of TV cameras and a studio audience. This is just a one-off joke and nothing comes of it.
  • Happened in the final season of Hannah Montana.
  • Parodied in one episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where Mr. Krabs and Plankton decided to switch places. In the end, Spongebob and everyone notice that they were dressed like each other, Spongebob and Patrick then proceed to unmask each other, revealing each other to be various people, such as Sandy, Squidward, and even each other.
  • Used twice in All Fall Down: once to reveal to the reader who the Ghoul really is, and again when Sophie reveals her identity to her best friend, Grace.
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