Pop culture once idolized the hero—the white knight who took the high road to the rescue. But lately our tastes have changed, taking a darker turn toward what we seem to find irresistible.
The anti-hero has become a cultural phenomenon that we adore. Walter White, Tony Soprano, Catwoman, Don Draper—the list of complex characters is growing longer every day. Though their qualities may be less than admirable, we don’t care—we just want more.
As media consumers, our voracious appetite for more anti-heroes in film, TV, comic books and more reflects our own inner complexity. That’s according to GLT’s Psych Geeks, Eric Wesselmann and Scott Jordan, who both teach in the Illinois State University Department of Psychology.
“The question of what defines an anti-hero is kind of squishy,” said Wesselmann. “It all depends on how you want to define it. The early definitions of anti-hero focused on having a protagonist who is flawed yet overwhelmed by their situation, like Willie Loman from 'Death of a Salesman.' Other definitions seem to key on a traditional protagonist who is capable, but who does things that are morally ambiguous, things that we in real life wouldn’t approve of, yet this person is still the protagonist, the ‘hero’ role. But we can’t call them a traditional hero.”
And what does trying to make a distinction between hero and anti-hero reveal about us?
“Why are we trying to binary these characters between hero and anti-hero?” Jordan wondered. “What we’re really grappling with is what is considered acceptable in our time. What do we unconditionally call good and what is it that we are challenged to call good?”
The lure of the anti-hero may be bound up with the concept of power.
“Writers are pushing the boundaries of what will qualify as good even though these anti-heroes might be saving people, defending the weak and underrepresented,” said Jordan. “Defending them by kinds of means that the bourgeois culture might assume to be bad. Maybe the ones who get to claim who heroes are are in the majority and are the people in power. A lot of these contemporary anti-heroes are the ones who don’t have power, who aren’t in the majority. By any means necessary, they try to help the repressed.”
Wesselmann agreed, noting that people are also drawn to anti-heroes, in part, due to identification.
“We see something of ourselves in them. For some people it could be wish fulfillment, ‘I would love to go out there and be a vigilante but I’m not going to because I believe in my heart it’s not right or I don’t want to get caught.’ For characters like Dexter, who is a serial killer who only kills worse people, some people have argued that maybe to enjoy that type of narrative you have to morally disengage.”
“But I think this idea of realism is one that resonates with me. In reality, humans are morally complex, and life is not always clear-cut. So, these morally ambiguous protagonists reflect that ambiguity.”
Regardless of why we like the morally complex protagonists, the Psych Geeks agree that the dominance of the anti-hero in popular culture could herald a new social climate.
“Culturally, the pendulum is swinging from the idea that we’re all individual things in an empty space to the idea that we’re all connected to each other,” said Jordan. “I think you can see the current anti-hero market expressing the inescapability of context. We’re all caught in the real world and we deal with the world as it is, and we’re seeing the emergence of a type of hero who willfully walks into the beautifully ugly nature of reality. So, instead of creating a story where someone can end up being pure and clean at the end, I think culture is giving up on that idea of purity and moving more towards an idea of engagement. I think it’s a sign of cultural growth.”
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