A character engages in behavior that is repugnant, horrific, even sickening, yet we sympathize with him. A character murders another and we rationalize it by saying, “Well, he had no choice.” Why do we, as the spectator, permit such volatile behavior that is devoid of morality? Why do we call such characters “tragic heroes” or “misunderstood?”
The answer is two-pronged. Firstly, these characters are directly defying the normative societal ideal. Second, these characters are carefully constructed and introduced to the spectator as a ‘flawed hero’ and their subsequent attitudes and actions are reinforced with this initial introduction. These two attributes offer the spectator to descend into an underbelly of deviant behavior that is presented as a new norm.
The concept of the normal ideal is usually presented in the context of ‘suburbia,’ which has evolved beyond being a physical location for spectators. This isn’t merely about living outside of the city, but rather a mentality that is evoked and perpetuated upon others. Suburbia is represented as a mindset, a defeatist complacency. Those who are immersed in suburbia are trapped, incapable of ever escaping. Suburbia is the arena where aspiration is extinguished, a concept of the future is evaporated, and spontaneity is replaced with routine. Suburbia takes excitement and replaces it with sacrifice.
These are realities that even the most complacent of suburbia dwellers can identify with. This notion of “I won’t truly get what I dreamed I would” becomes prevalent. Many avoid this concept as its so depressive, but they don’t truly ever eradicate that reality from themselves.
Therefore a film or television show that takes the concept of suburbia and disrupts it, that feeds into a discreet anti-suburbia fantasy, has the makings of success because it links with a negative attitude towards that already-established environment. Suburbia emphasizes specific norms that these movies deliberately dismantle and treat as nuisances.
The spectator observes this, and while being mortified, inadvertently praises the disrupter as an anti-hero. This unintended hero typically has tremendous character flaws, therefore the spectator cannot ever be the character. It fulfills a fantasy without the notion of it ever becoming a reality.
The best example of this is Walter White in the AMC series Breaking Bad. His very existence is the perpetuation of what suburbia represents. He is a brilliant scientist who has been reduced to teaching at a high school. His inter-relationships diminish who he is and has become complacent with this existence. He isn’t satisfied with it, but he has accepted it as a norm. Walter White, upon introduction, is relatable in that regard.
Therefore, when he breaks bad, Walter White’s journey is synced with the spectator’s own morbid fantasy of defying the suburbia stereotype. The added brilliance to this odyssey was show creator Vince Gilligan’s decision to show Walter White’s progression from a suburbia existence into his own entity, better known as his drug empire.
The early seasons of Breaking Bad were about exterminating the suburbia engrained within himself, which he ultimately does by the show’s third season. With the spectator being a part of that journey, we come to despise the concept of the normal, and lavish in the defiant. This strategy was so effective that it inadvertently caused the spectator to despise the characters who exhibited morality throughout the show, such as Anna Gunn’s Skylar White.
In fact, this vilification of morality was so expressive by Breaking Bad fans that Anna Gunn finally wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about her suffering “from a character issue.”
This destruction of the normative is exceedingly obvious in David Fincher’s Fight Club. The film’s very construction is about the film’s unnamed Narrator (played brilliantly by Edward Norton) and his descent into the world of Tyler Durden and fight club, which formulates a revolutionary movement aimed to utterly annihilate normative society.
The unnamed narrator represents those within society who have become invisible and lack any form of audacity. The narrator’s distaste for society is initially tamed because he believes in the devaluing of his life, to which visuals of him bored emphasize alackluster life that he is expected to comply with. Therefore, what makes Fight Club’s impact more apparent is when the narrator takes part in a group that salivates at the notion of disrupting society.
Through the narrator we are witnessing the hypocrisy of society being exposed, but also being manipulated. With the film’s unapologetic, dead-pan voiceover mixed with violence represented as the new norm, the spectator is offered a differing vantage of “normalcy” that contradicts the societal ideal. In fact, this ideal is mocked repeatedly throughout the film in a deliberate effort to brainwash, or awaken, the spectator into realizing the futility of living within a societal ideal existence.
Fight Club‘s success was in convincing, or reminding, spectators that they do not have to conform to an ideal if they choose not to. That is particularly why Fight Club has a cult following to it, because its message is one of non-conformity.
Another example of the destruction of the normal ideal is the 1993 film Falling Down. The entire structure of this film was about an individual, who is unnamed for the majority of the film (played by Michael Douglas in an incredible performance), and who has long been disenchanted with what society has become. He has long accepted complacency because that is the expectation. The film occurs in a roughly twelve-hour period when the character, only initially known by the name on his license plate (D-FENS), embarks on a vigilante journey through Los Angeles.
What makes this odyssey particularly interesting is that D-FENS never initiates any of his instances of society destruction, but is almost always instigated to react. The mundane or the ridiculous cause him to snap, to which he does in a dramatic fashion in order to get what he wants. In that regard, he is never a hero, yet with the spectator journeying with D-FENS and witnessing, first-hand, his encounters with the ridiculous, they sync with his rationality of threatening violence to bring things back to “what makes sense.”
Any spectator of the film has one way or another encountered a ridiculous rule that has been implemented upon society. This fits within the spectator’s scope of reality. Falling Down is so effective in that regard that when D-FENS asks the question, “I’m the bad guy?” it actually resonates as a sad moment from character-to-spectator. The spectator actually pities D-FENS, despite his violence, because he has become an anti-hero for defying the ridiculous society rules that have been imposed upon all.
Yet how can these vile characters evoke such sympathy from the movie or TV-going audience? This links to the next important component regarding sympathizing with villainy which is narrative construction. Narrative correlates with intentionality and it frames how we are to perceive a given character or situation.
To reiterate this, let’s use the very talented Kevin Spacey as an example with two of his most famous characters: Lester Burnham and Frank Underwood. It is important to note that with both characters we are introduced to them immediately and they directly converse with the spectator.
In American Beauty, Lester Burnham speaks to us directly in a voiceover before the narrative of the film begins. In the first episode of Netflix’s House of Cards, Frank Underwood quite shockingly breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the spectator. In both these instances, the spectator is informed that this is the individual we are to follow throughout the narrative, yet the narrative hasn’t been established enough to allow us the ability to sympathize or vilify them. That changes within a matter of minutes.
For Lester Burnham, he openly admits in the film’s opening minutes, “Both my wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser…and I am,” which immediately causes the spectator to observe him as someone who has given up, fallen victim to the social construct of suburbia. More importantly, Lester Burnham is immediately framed as the everyday man who suddenly snaps and wants to do what is good for him, rather than maintain the conformity of ‘helping others’ that suburbia represents. This is why audiences adored and loved Lester Burnham, because the narrative was about him breaking free of the shackles of a defeated life.
This quite the opposite to introducing Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood to audiences in the first episode of House of Cards. Upon “tending to” a dog that has been the victim of a hit-and-run, Underwood breaks down the fourth wall and speaks directly to the spectator, “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things,” before strangling the dog.
This revoltingly cold introduction to the character immediately informs the spectator that this is not someone meant to identify with. In fact, we are meant to despise him and hate his every action. The fact that he murders a dog in the show’s opening two minutes especially fits within a narrative construction aimed to make the spectator hate the character. Therefore, we are never meant to sympathize with him, but rather be disgusted by how successful Underwood is at destroying everything in his path to get precisely what he wants.
Narrative construction has allowed the most flawed characters to be revered by audiences. One of the most notable examples of this is Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. The character is immediately introduced to the spectator as a protagonist. We are given a vantage of his mindset and rationality through the voiceover narration, which seeks to frame him as misunderstood.
However, there is the reality that Travis Bickle is a highly unstable, extremely dangerous individual. He is self-alienated and disgruntled about life. Arguably, he is a sociopath, who rationalizes his actions, most of which are disturbing throughout the course of the film. Yet even though the character exhibits obsessive behavior over a woman, nearly assassinates a presidential candidate, and engages in a gory shoot-out, audiences of the film proclaim Travis Bickle as an unintended hero.
Why is that? The narrative construction, specifically through the voiceover, frames the streets of New York City as the true evil. He is jaded and alone because that is what the city has done to him. The passengers who get in his cab reinforce this notion of filth and slime that walk the streets. His quest is to find harmony and correct at least one wrong in this environment of ill-repute. This is a narrative that the spectator can directly identify with, therefore finding a common connection between themselves and a character they would never associate with in real-life.
Truth is, Travis Bickle is a very frightening individual. Yet because the character snaps and rescues a teenage prostitute and those he is ultimately murders are the “true” bad guys, we as an audience can process these actions sympathetically. Nobody can argue that they support teenage prostitution or pimps, therefore these are ill-regarded people that “got what was coming to them.” When one considers this, we are actually rationalizing violence. While Travis does in fact save a girl from teenage prostitute, it is us ascribing a ‘hero-status’ upon him despite how it was achieved. That is the brilliance of proper narrative construction.
As evidenced by the prior examples, it is possible to respect and sympathize with characters who are not good people. This boils down to an individual’s discreet desire to see the societal ideal being tarnished and the cinematic reason of narrative construction aiding the spectator to resonate with the ‘flawed’ character. Yet the argument of this feature is that these two components only work effectively when they are linked together.
There are vast amounts of film and television that utilize one or the other, yet they largely fail to evoke sympathy. Instead, they provide polarizing situations and characters we hope to see fail. It is only when the societal ideal is dismantled and supported with proper narrative construction that the film or television series will incite a fascination for individuals who we would otherwise find disgusting or be terrified of.