Why do we like despicable people? What about them is likable enough to make us seek them out? Do we aspire to their freedom from obligation and the constraint of morality? Are we watching a car accident as it happens?For a few months now, this subject has been rattling around in my head. There are many types of protagonist: heroes, explorers, everymen and everywomen, magicians, the list goes on... there is a specific type of protagonist that seems common these days that has got my goat. The characters who are likable, or at least who you are expected to like by their creators, but whose flaws tragically cripple them in some basic way. This is a common trait of the most famed protagonists of television from its inception, The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, Family Guy and The Flintstones all have a boorish lout you're supposed to love anyway, Tony Soprano's violence and imperiousness, Archie Bunker's intolerance, Jerry Seinfeld's general annoying jerkiness; these are all things that are supposed to make these characters more interesting and to provoke conflict for characters that the audience likes in the first place.
This structure has been seen a million different ways and it certainly isn't exclusive to television, the idea is older and certainly has its basis in human nature. What is different is that we're seeing more female protagonists, and so we're seeing this same structure in new ways.
Nurse Jackie is the story of a competent nurse whose addiction to drugs leads her to do all sorts of terrible things that hurt everyone around her, but she is good at her job and we all want her to change, to not lie, to live up to her full potential. Hijinks ensue
Nancy Botwin of Weeds is a suburban widow who decides to sell drugs, and over the course of many seasons completely destroys her sons' futures and pulls her family deep into a criminal world where their lives are often imperiled. Hijinks ensue
Bridesmaids features a main character whose primary mode of operating is frighteningly befuddled by life. Her best friend is getting married, and to spite someone who she feels threatens her relationship with that friend. Hijinks ensue.
In Young Adult, a successful young adult book author and psychopath returns to her hometown, bent on rekindling a romance with her high school sweetheart who is now happily married with a newborn baby. Hijinks ensue
There is no doubt that these outlaw characters, playing by their own rules and ethical codes, and the struggles they may face allow for some solid acting. Theron manages to bring the same chilling depth of talent to the aging popular girl in Young Adult that she did for Aileen Wuornos in Monster. It's not hard to imagine this woman eventually killing someone, or as your neighbor; but neither character is someone you'd necessarily feel like inviting into your home. Here lies the meat of my obsession, if you wouldn't want to invite the character into your house, why do you metaphorically invite them in through the narrative you observe?
Especially true of some of these television series, where their ongoing seasons of programming require that the characters remain somewhat stunted in their growth out of these qualities so that they can continue to battle their lesser instincts. In truth, this stunted progression begins to run a bit too hopeless for my taste, and frankly, I don't need help being pessimistic about human nature. Why do we watch these stories when it becomes increasingly clear that they are never going to get better?
My posit is that we are innately hopeful, that somewhere in our decision to tune in or buy a ticket, we want to see these people make a different decision, that they might pull themselves together and it might all end well, at least for the innocents around them. This is not necessarily people's expectation rationally, not every story needs a happy ending. That said, why do we like these despicable people? What about them is likable enough to make us seek them out? Do we aspire to their freedom from obligation and the constraint of morality? Are we watching a car accident as it happens? Do we think that by observing these creatures we'll be able to avoid them and their pitfalls in the real world?
Archetypically, the outlaw can lead to real reform or revolution in the world around them, but with so many of these modern protagonists, they are stuck in criminality and despair. How do these characters reach an endgame? How could their narratives develop to show growth and inspire catharsis?
One of my absolute favorite characters in recent years was Vic Mackey of The Shield, he was undoubtedly an anti-hero, and an outlaw in the archetypal sense. The show made no bones about Mackey's tendencies towards criminality, moral and ethical trespass, and also, managed to make him a nuanced character whose decisions were transparent to the audience and was charismatic, charming and unmistakably likable. This dichotomy grew from the fact that his decision-making, selfish and often loathsome though it was, was revealed as much in how he enforced justice and law, and genuine human relationships around him. The real brilliance of this series was that even within an episodic context they managed to create a very long build that maintained the balance between the positive results of his behavior and the negative results of the same behavior. Ultimately, this paid off multiple times until the denouement of the series managed to beautifully synthesize all of the choices he'd made in an inevitable result that was utterly satisfying to the viewer.
This is no easy feat, whether your protagonist is male or female, and it is rare that one finds that sort of development and payoff in any show, no matter how well intended. So, let's look at the list above again, two on the list are popular television shows that attempt to marry long and short form stories into seasons. Two are movies, one extremely successful commercially (Bridesmaids is Judd Apatow's highest grossing film, and it has received an Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay), one markedly less so commercially (Young Adult won 4 Golden Globes). These display potential, and are some fairly compelling characters that show a willingness to allow female characters to be as despicable as male characters– jarring and repulsive though that is at times.
|Gemma and her son, Jacks|
While Botwin often halfheartedly attempts to wield the power of the criminal outlaw (threaten, intimidate, scheme and expand her enterprise) she has never really embraced her criminality, still very much seeming the suburban housewife, cloistered from reality. This variability often gets in the way of Botwin's stated primary goal: to protect and steward her family. Gemma on the other hand has no clear qualms about criminality, she has accepted that she is operating according to a different code of behavior than the law-abiding and in turn, will actually do whatever she feels necessary to protect them, not stopping according to someone else's moral code. Similar to Mackey, Gemma's decision haunt her and she is driven forward by the cause and effect of years old choices and actions that are beginning to karmically return to her now that her son is old enough to protect himself. If any of the characters yet mentioned seems to be building to the same level of payoff that The Shield showed, Gemma is the most likely candidate. This may be a function of the short-half-hour-comedy versus a the long-form-hour-long-drama dilemma, but regardless, Gemma's story demonstrates stakes that seem commensurate with the trespasses she has wrought. Will a comedy show about a similar outlaw be willing to destroy a profitable character in the same manner?
The clear difference between characters with these qualities who are male and those who are female is that there are many fewer examples of female outlaws of this type to create a robust pool. Some find these qualities in a female protagonist jarring, and they are given the low frequency of similar ladies in the past. It's clear that there is an increasing trend toward female protagonists in high profile film releases, snail-slow though the trend may seem. As these examples begin to be explored, it is likely we'll see commercially driven properties explore the same type of character a number of times before they experiment with more styles. The outcast teenager, the diva actress/singer/artist, the outlaw housewife... That's a function of a conservative attitude to risk in a profit-minded entertainment industry protecting the investment in a given narrative over time. That said, the fact that multiple narratives are exploring similar these similar character types is worth noting as a sign that folks are betting on the success of a specific kind of character. A specific kind of female character, and that is some progress at least.