When I watched Breaking Bad, I kept wondering who I was supposed to root for. From internet chatter, I knew that people generally idolized Walter White and considered his wife a b!t@h, while feeling endeared toward Jesse Pinkman. Because of this I expected Walter White’s character to be quite admirable, and his wife’s character to be boring/annoying. But after watching Walter White go beyond the point of likability many times over, I realized I was thinking about it wrong. The way we are interpreting stories is changing, and it’s actually a great thing.
To sum it up: People today are watching stories less to a) see characters that reinforce archetypes (or worse, stereotypes) and b) present an idea of how a likable, moral person should act (A.K.A. a hero). Instead the most popular stories seem to a) challenge stereotypes, and the idea that people have a solid, consistent personality/beliefs over time b) make us confront and think about moral ambiguity and people who challenge our ability to judge (A.K.A. anti-heroes).
In other words, watching a show and deciding who you are supposed to root for may be limiting what we can get out of shows. We, by nature, usually want to find a character that reinforces our biases, our attitudes about society and our belief in ourselves. But should we? Is a fictional character good because they act “good,” or because they make us think? It should generally be the latter, right?
Anti-heroes are everywhere today. Here are some that come to mind:
-Frank Underwood (House of Cards)
-Jordan Belfort (Wolf of Wall Street)
-Hannah Horvath (Girls)
I started thinking about this when I watched Wolf of Wall Street and American Psycho in the same week. In some ways the movies are similar: Both are larger-than-life takedowns of Wall Street douchebags. But the newer movie lets you decide how you feel about the character, wherein the older one immediately lets you know the movie hates him too.
Wolf of Wall Street goes to great lengths to make us have fun with Jordan Belfort, which, by a certain magic of moviedom, makes us develop some empathy for him. And that makes the experience of the movie challenging. In contrast, American Psycho opens with a scene showing Patrick Bateman detailing his obsessive, expensive facial care habits. “Oh,” I thought immediately. “You’re supposed to hate him.” I had assumed he was an anti-hero in the vein of Walter White and Frank Underwood, or maybe even Dexter. But no. The movie sneers at Bateman with you.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I really liked American Psycho. And I’m not saying having heroes in stories is bad either. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Katniss Everdeen and the like give people someone to aspire to be like. But we seem to be, at the moment, particularly caught up in stopping and staring at people who make our moral compasses spin. To me, that indicates a sort of self-searching going on in entertainment culture. (Although I’m not saying that’s new, considering that Seinfeld, Clockwork Orange and other older stories were all about anti-heroes. It could just be that these stories now rise to the top more thanks to serial-watching culture.)
There may also be some other forces at play in our love of anti-heroes. A couple come to mind:
-Voyeurism. How fun is it to watch “bad” people get what they deserve? Or just to see what happens to them?
-High stakes. Shows about impulsive people tend to have very high stakes. Your favorite character might randomly die in an episode. What makes a show more compulsive and emotional to watch?
But we’re not necessarily watching to see bad things happen to bad people, or to see people get pushed in front of trains. We’re watching to figure out if people are really as bad as they are foreshadowed to be, and how they got that way, and how it is that we started to care about them so much.