Nation of Villains: Why We Like the Unlikeable

A while back, for this very site, I authored an interview and review of Chuck Klosterman's I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined). It's a terrific read and deals with the concept of villainy and evil in several very enjoyable and thought-provoking essays, through the lens of fiction, pop culture, and history.

It's also a very timely book, as a look at the cultural landscape can tell you one thing for certain: we've got bad guys on the brain. This is most readily apparent in the world of television (where most cultural trends can be spotted nowadays), but it's also popped up in literature, film, and other cultural avenues. Make no mistakes, we are living in what I'd like to call the age of the anti-hero, but we've long ago crossed that threshold and graduated to something else entirely.

Our fascination with villainy, as explained beautifully by Chuck, used to stem from our fascination with the other. As human beings living in a civilized society, we're hardwired to behave in certain ways, and as with any cultural expectation, the person who balks at what he or she is supposed to be will always be fascinating to the person who saw no other option. For a long time, the tradition in storytelling, and in particular, Western narrative, took it for granted that audiences wanted a protagonist who was relatable, if not directly, then by way of aspiration. In other words, even if a reader couldn't see much of himself in Perseus, at least he knew that in the right set of circumstances, he too would make the right choice and slay Medusa.

In more contemporary times we've become more and more comfortable with protagonists who aren't only unlikeable, but downright despicable

As time went on, more and more authors began to challenge readers with protagonists that slipped further and further from the Western ideal, and, in some cases, seemed like downright awful people. Holden Caulfield, the high-strung, unreliable, and selectively moralizing protagonist of Catcher in the Rye is one of the more noteworthy examples. While the brilliance of the book and the character is often lost on readers who consider it nothing more than the tirades of a sniveling teenager, Caulfield works as a brilliant protagonist precisely because he is a distillation of what it feels like to be a surging vessel for hormones teetering on the cusp of adulthood. Nobody really aspires to be like Caulfield, except maybe insane people who go on to murder pop stars. However, those with an exceptional and/or honest memory might look upon his story with some sort of fleeting, bittersweet nostalgia. Sometimes our heroes (or anti-heroes) tell us what we might be, and other times they remind us of what we once were.

In more contemporary times we've become more and more comfortable with protagonists who aren't only unlikeable, but downright despicable. Tyler Durden and Patrick Bateman top the list of favorite literary psychos (though Durden isn't exactly unlikeable, he's still got some very evil and cracked ideas about the world), while the leading men and women of television run the gamut from deeply flawed anti-heroes (True DetectiveOrange is the New Black) to out and out monsters (Breaking Bad, Mad Men). In this new age of prestige television that arguably began with The Sopranos and continues through today, we're to understand that an examination of the more base values held by some of our favorite characters lends a show more realism, credibility, and gravity. Our affection for characters with flaws and complications makes us feel as though we reflect that complexity to outside observers. Who is considered by his friends to have a more sophisticated taste in comic books: the guy who adores Superman or the one who loves Batman?

These explanations for our fascination with darkness have long been satisfactory, but as I grow older and a bit more cynical about human nature, I've begun to consider that people have another, more outwardly negative reasons for gluing their eyeballs to pages and screens populated by people in black. The first is a little sad but understandable, and the second is downright disturbing.

There's an old and inaccurate saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. An equally clever but no less flawed version might read: there are no heroes in hard times. In short, it's easy to expect much of people in prosperous times, but something of a pipe dream when backs are against walls. It's no secret that for the vast majority of American adults, times are tough. Without getting into many justifications for why some people feel the sky is falling (and without getting into a pointless debate about this country's prosperity relative to the rest of the world), I'll only say that anyone with an ounce of empathy can understand that the average American faces many stresses in a normal day, and that stresses upon stresses sometimes results in decisions that aren't exactly shining examples of morality in action. In other words, people fuck up, constantly, and it's comforting to have characters in your life that you can feel superior to on some level. There's a small and petty joy in being spoon-fed tales of people who accomplish more than us by one metric but fail with great bravado by another (example: Don Draper is wealthy, talented, and handsome, but he can't keep a relationship together and he's incapable of love).

Somewhat related but much more disheartening, we have to consider the possibility that some of us are more enamored with those who walk on the dark side because we feel we're in good company. I'm not trying to step onto a soapbox or advocate censorship in the name of "the children", but how many people look at figures like Don Draper, Walter White, or Frank Underwood and internalize the lessons of their respective narratives as "the end justifies the means?" Surely a scarce few aspiring millionaires want to model every aspect of themselves after The Wolf of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort, but I've personally witnessed more than one group of young men in pin-stripes and tie clips imitating Dicaprio and McConaughey 's rhythmic chest-thumping with gleeful abandon, seeming to either not fully comprehend the cautionary nature of the film or to not care.

Looking at some more fringe elements of society, we can find subcultures that thrive on the very concept of being vilified, if not embracing villainy directly. Juggalos, those often-maligned, sometimes hilarious, and always weird followers of Insane Clown Posse (terrible musicians, brilliant businessmen), build their entire identities upon being rejected. Lest the comments section be besieged by hordes of angry hatchetmen, it should be pointed out that these individuals don't necessarily embrace evil, but rather hold up being true to one's self as life's greatest ambition. The only problem is, as documentaries like American Juggalo show with heartbreaking clarity, this usually amounts to nothing more than drifting through life with minimal effort, getting stoned, fat, drunk, and listening to ICP. The understandably confused and/or contemptuous reaction this lifestyle elicits in others is seen as proof that the Juggalo is living a truly righteous existence. It's the American Nightmare writ large, or perhaps the American Dream, depending on how dark your outlook is. Admittedly, these individuals represent a tiny fraction of the population, but their core value seems in line with the new Generation of Me agenda. We might be willing to knock innocent people to the ground as we climb the ladder of ambition, but at least we're not selling crystal meth, living under assumed identities, or murdering prostitutes, right?

I hope I'm wrong, and that our latest love of all things bad isn't rooted in a desire to excuse or even celebrate or own Machiavellian impulses. The other will always be fascinating to the majority, but here's hoping that the guys in black hats remain in the realm of the other, rather than becoming a reflection of ourselves.

John Jarzemsky

Column by John Jarzemsky

John is a freelance writer who has been with LitReactor since the days of its halcyon youth. You can check out John's blog, the poorly titled Super Roller Disco Monkey Hullabaloo!, for other reviews, random musings, and ill-thought out rants. He was recently published in Bushwick Nightz, a collection of short stories about the Brooklyn neighborhood in which he resides.

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L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 18, 2014 - 1:14pm

I actually don't really believe in good characters or evil characters. Ever since I turned eighteen I have come to suspect the motives of characters like superman.

For me I like characters that focus more on the regressive arc rather than the progressive arc (assuming your story is following the five stages of human grief of course.)

Though I still think Punisher Max and Dexter are just a bit much.:/

Sleepy's picture
Sleepy from Sydney, Australia is reading A Game of Thrones June 19, 2014 - 6:41am

I think another possibility is that we like characters that reflect our own behaviour as it makes us not feel like we're the only one that acts like arseholes. Not that we're necessarily better then the characters in the show but that they're like us in some ways. Sure the characters are often in out there scenarios but fiction uses drama and exaggeration to get our attention. This bit might be a bit of a long bow but with the rise of mediums such as facebook we've seen the rise of the anti-hero. People only present there best side on these mediums and leave the not so good out. Upon looking on the supposed perfect lives of other people we can begin to wonder why were the only ones fucking up in aspects of life. We on some level forget that everyone has difficulties in life and the anti-hero reminds us in a modern society that were not alone in being fuck ups from time to time

Kelsey Phillips's picture
Kelsey Phillips from Broadripple is reading Teatro Grottesco (Thomas Ligotti) June 20, 2014 - 7:13am

Or perhaps even more obviously, the bored live vicariously through the exciting?
I assume there are folks who find it cathartic to watch ugly behavior in the same way they might find a release of tension by screaming at an asshole driver in traffic.

Olivia Marcus's picture
Olivia Marcus from Chicago, IL is reading "Twenties Girl" by Sophie Kinsella July 28, 2014 - 3:00am

Maybe people like to read about villainous types because we know we can't, for example, randomly kill somebody who annoys us--in other words, there's stuff that "society" doesn't allow us to do, but we like to watch it/read it because in fictional worlds, it can happen, and it does. Or else people just get all riled up by big explosions. :)

alexx's picture
alexx January 30, 2023 - 12:52am

I dеfinitely loved every little bit of it and I have you book marked too check .
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