Most of my life I’ve rooted for the villains. I have a huge collection of action figures at home, most of which are villainous characters from comic books, Star Wars and other recognizable films or TV shows. My first (and really only) acting role was a melodramatic villain with a cape and curled mustache. I’m a Slytherin. Some of my earliest Halloween costumes were Captain Hook, Darth Vader and Darth Maul. I’ve loved pirates for as long as I can remember, half-wishing (still wishing) that I’d lose an eye, hand or leg so I could replace it with an eye-patch, hook or peg leg, respectively.
Does that make me a terribly evil person? Is my soul dark and twisted and beyond saving?
I was recently talking with a friend over pizza (some of my best conversations occur when there’s food involved) about this, particularly concerning House of Cards. Now, House of Cards is a brilliant show and Kevin Spacey is amazing. But, his character, Frank Underwood, is a terrible, awful human—without a doubt. Yet, I still find myself rooting for him, even though I know he’s depraved, utterly immoral and completely aware of his horribleness. Then, I start to wonder if I’m terrible, simply because I want him to succeed. Perhaps it’s because he’s so incredibly clever and persistent. His ability to bounce back from any failure and turn it into a larger success is admirable.
The rise of anti-heroes results in similar discussions and concerns. Honestly, there seems to be confusion surrounding what it actually means to be an anti-hero, what distinguishes an anti-hero from a hero and what keeps anti-heroes from becoming villains. Anti-heroes can be anyone from Frank Underwood to Batman to Sherlock Holmes to Walter White to The Shadow to V to Don Draper to Shrek to Captain Jack Sparrow to Malcolm Reynolds to Severus Snape (a fellow Slytherin!) to Jay Gatsby to Holden Caulfield.
Are we meant to root for these characters? Depends. The idea of mixing the good and bad is not a new one and admittedly results in much more compelling characters, even when I’m conflicted about how I should feel about them. Does our response to such characters tell us more about ourselves than it does about the character?
Am I drawn to these characters because they represent some repressed desires that I have? (You can tell I’ve been reading some Freud…) Is it because I can vicariously live my twisted, evil life through them? If so, is that a bad thing? I mean, if I were a character in something, I would want to be the evil one, planning on taking over the world, having all sorts of devious plots. That’s so much more exciting than saving the world. But, I would never actually do something evil. I don’t think.
I guess some of this goes back to the question of what relationship our entertainment has to us. Does it influence our behavior? Do our choices in entertainment reflect something about us? Is there no connection or impact on ourselves?
I firmly believe in the power of literature and film to influence us and to have a real impact on our lives. So, I reject the assertion that what we consume has no impact on who we are. I don’t think the connection is so simplistic however that you can draw direct associations between the behaviors of characters and the actions of individuals. Something about what I choose to watch and read speaks to me, otherwise I wouldn’t watch or read it. Those things that really resonate, I go back to again and again—even if I’ve only experienced it once, I return to it in my thoughts.
I recently re-watched Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog (featuring Neil Patrick Harris as the musical villain Dr. Horrible). Again, I identified with him, rather than the “hero” Captain Hammer (probably because Capt. Hammer is a total tool). There’s nothing good about Dr. Horrible besides that he’s humorous and relatable (because I’m also an aspiring supervillain…), yet I still want him to succeed, even though his success leads more to some sort of world domination than Capt. Hammer’s would.
In conjunction with this, I was listening to the Muppet Treasure Island soundtrack and the “When You’re a Professional Pirate” song came on. It’s one of my favorites. (The whole movie is fantastic. Tim Curry as Long John Silver is one of my favorite film characters. And PIRATES. Love pirates.) The message of the song is essentially that pirates aren’t terrible people and that who the heroes and villains are is all a matter of perspective. Sure, there’s some truth to that. Especially historically. But, I think there’s something a bit more absolute about good and evil than complete relativism.
So, I guess I don’t really have a solid answer. I’m not sure why I identify with the more villainous characters or if it’s bad that I do. I think it’s important to be conscious of the entertainment we consume and to consider what the effects it can have on us are. I don’t think it’s necessarily inherently damaging to identify with villains, particularly if you can separate them from their more dastardly actions. But, again, perhaps there’s more danger in that—the separation suggests that evil deeds may not influence us as people, which isn’t really true. Yes, we can change and we are more than what we do, but what we do consistently becomes who we are. After all, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
Be a thoughtful consumer of entertainment. And if you can tell me why I love villains and what that says about me, please do. I’d love to hear your thoughts.