The perverse joy of the anti-hero
Morality is a funny part of social conscience and conscious.
We know what is expected of us in most situations we find ourselves in. We have expectations for others should act in varying situations. Likewise, we have a pretty clear idea of how to treat those who go beyond the realms of expected social behaviour. Usually, if transgression is deemed great enough, our reactions go as far as repulsion and exclusion of the violator.
Certain guidelines I refer to are the obvious – people treating others with care and kindness, using manners and demonstrating respect. If someone is unpleasant, unfriendly or unkind, it is not difficult to see that there will be no ongoing relationship with that person. They are shunned, avoided and even, at times, ridiculed. (The final situation is ironic given that our rules for social discipline apparently does not relate to demonstrating for respect for others when they are not around)
This probably mind-numbingly obvious.
What intrigues me is when our opinion of others changes based on their behaviour in the private sphere of life.
Unfaithfulness is probably the common theme in this aspect.
When we were younger, we perhaps had an understanding that we knew how we would treat someone we knew to have been unfaithful. That we would recognise that they were a person of weak character and severe ties.
I think this is reflected by characterization in many forms of basic literature. Many characters are depicted as two-dimensional plot devices – you are either confronted with the affable hero or the devilish villain. Snow White was beautiful and innocent. The Queen was evil. We knew what side we were on – we knew what we had to do. We know, in most films, your Jennifer Anniston/Amy Adams is your good girl and your smug, smarmy guy opposite will either become a love interest when his perfect character is revealed, or rather reveal himself to be the villain when he flashes his wallet at her and feels this entitles him to flash his bits as well.
These characters are safe. We can remain guarded in our own private setting (as we often read or view from home) and judge those who do not have the same scruples as ourselves (or we’d at least like to think).
The anti-hero does not afford us this luxury. It is for this reason that I am intrigued by them.
With this character, we are often confronted with a person uncomfortably familiar with the types of people we already know. They may not be overly pleasant, but they are able to maintain social relationships. They may not always say the right thing, but they say enough things to maintain realism. We come to forgive these flaws in the same way we forgive the quirks of our friends or loved-ones. These characters are granted a free pass that we would not afford people we choose to not associate with because they are rounded, believable characters and, moreover, we don’t have a choice.
Our view of their private world gives an insight into the character that we would not have in our normal interactions.
If someone I did not care for was to cheat on their partner, it would be my first response to nod knowingly to myself in my judgement and reaffirm the lack of connection we already had. If it were say, a relative or close friend who transgressed, it suddenly becomes a far more complicated issue – one that forces you to reflect on not only your relationship, but your own character.
Don Draper of Mad Men is one such character. As a viewer, we are drawn to his brooding ways and often brilliant mind. He is intelligent and lives a life we would love to live. Successful, rich, possessor of a gorgeous home, children and wife. He is also unfaithful and ruthless. We have no choice but to follow him as we are simply viewers of the show, peering into the world created by others for us to see. I have no doubt about my feelings for the act of cheating – yet in this setting I can see him return home drunkenly to his wife. Leave for work in the morning, sleep with some random encountee during the day before returning to deal with the unpleasantness of other characters. Often, as we are faced with his infidelity, we end up barracking for his freedom to do what he wants because that’s what we believe he wants. Despite the fundamental character flaw, our judgement of him is clouded by his being the main character, the one we follow and are intrigued by. We are left to question; do we even like him?
I mention him because I’ve spent the last week watching Mad Men. It is, however, a form of characterisation I’ve always been enthralled with.
Characters like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City are characters you do not particularly like, they may not be who we would ourselves like to be, yet we still find ourselves sympathising with them.
When I was little, perhaps before I was born, my father cheated on my mother. They did not stay together and, my whole life, I’ve been faced with the dilemma between standing up for my beliefs and forming a relationship with him. It is further convoluted when you realise that standing up for ones beliefs is not as simple as it sounds. We ourselves are not perfect and we face this reality when presented with the desire to point out flaws in others.
It is here where these characters shine. They evoke an emotional response. Essentially, it doesn’t matter who they are or what they do. When they say the wrong thing, we think to ourselves what else could be said. When they behaviour terribly, we reflect on what it is in the human condition that allows to act in such a way and, moreover, how society can forgive such transgression.
Whilst we occasionally need to glory of a 2-D romp of bland characters, the presentation of a flawed character renders far greater opportunity for reflection and self understanding. Even if we don’t like what we are faced with.