Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Toxic Men in Media: Criticism or Glorification?

Can character critiques be effective when audiences aren't getting the message?.  ♦ 
The original hero is a good guy. He is a clean-cut, handsome leader who knows the difference between right and wrong and faces no internal qualms about fighting for what is indisputably right. He stands for morality, he sees no gray areas, and he does not succumb to temptation. This hero became a predictable messiah figure that viewers soon grew bored with, and thus, the anti-hero has risen to popularity over the last twenty years.

However, the anti-hero is moving from a flawed hero to an irredeemable man who does the bare minimum to occasionally to make us believe that maybe he does care about something, or someone. This type of protagonist began to receive backlash for representing moral depravity and violence against women, but instead of making better characters, creators have moved in the direction of putting forth these male protagonists under the guise of “criticism” of this precise behavior. After many years of watching toxic male protagonists on my screen who are supposedly meant to be self-criticisms, a question must be raised. Does the viewing experience even allow for these characters to function properly? More often than not, it seems that audiences are missing the point of these characters, and are simply enjoying the spectacle of watching horrible men sleep with beautiful women and commit gratuitous acts of manipulation and violence.

The issue here is that authorial intent has almost no bearing on how the viewer interprets what is put before them. Creators may have every intention of portraying that a man is despicable and not to be idolized, but the viewer may never come to this conclusion. This dissonance between the creator and the viewer is expertly articulated in the fifth season of Bojack Horseman. Bojack Horseman is an animated show that features an alcoholic, drug-addicted, emotionally manipulative, Hollywood has-been. He spends the show ruining his own life as well as hurting anyone and everyone who cares about him. Just when the audience begins to sympathize with Bojack, he almost has sex with his friend’s seventeen-year-old daughter, or chokes his girlfriend and co-star in a drug-induced haze. In the fifth season, the character Diane realizes that the television show she is working on, which stars Bojack, centers around a man who has committed horrible crimes, and could be viewers like that character feel exonerated rather than condemned, which was not her intent. As far as I’m concerned, in doing this Bojack Horseman is one of few shows that stars a morally abhorrent male protagonist and explicitly reminds its audience of that fact. The point being that although the character has done good things, he has also done things that are inexcusable, and as viewers we should not overlook either aspect of his character.

Another animated character that has entered the mainstream in the last several years is Rick Sanchez, one of the two protagonists of the television series Rick and Morty. Rick Sanchez is a genius scientist and inventor who takes his grandson, Morty, on inter-dimensional adventures. Rick is also a raging alcoholic who abandoned his wife and daughter and consistently uses others, in most cases his family, only as a means to his own selfish ends. Rick has almost no moral compass, and he uses his intelligence to avoid and excuse any responsibility he has to treat another human being with bare minimum respect. And yet, while there is a consensus among viewers that Rick is not a good person, it seems most viewers hold Rick to the same standards that he holds himself to: that he does not have to be a good person, because he’s too powerful and intelligent to be tied down by such an insignificant responsibility. This is an attitude that is particularly unsavory when we see it translated to men in real life—men who believe they are intrinsically superior to others, and therefore, do not need to treat others with basic respect. Furthermore, Rick is consistently excused for his amoral and apathetic behavior when, once every several episodes, he reluctantly reveals through small, backhanded moments of selflessness that he does care for his grandson. Somehow, the audience takes the scraps of Rick’s emotional reveals and uses these moments to reconcile the countless times he has traumatized and endangered his grandson.

Even before watching The Wolf of Wall Street, the consumer knows that Jordan Belfort’s debauchery catches up to him and causes him to crash and burn. We know that Belfort spent 22 months in prison and lost the glamorous empire he built. We know that we should not want to be like him. But while watching the movie we root for him. We are jealous of his lifestyle and his prowess. He is portrayed as untouchable—as godlike. By the time I entered college I knew countless eighteen-year-old boys who aspired to be Jordan Belfort, the drug addicted, domestic abuser, billionaire fraud. In the final shot of the film, after Belfort has served his quick and cushy time in prison, he is still selling. The camera pans to an audience that avidly watches Jordan Belfort in all his glory, aspiring to achieve what he has. This shot could be interpreted as director Martin Scorsese subtly placing some of the blame on us—the audience, the consumer, and the society that not only allows for Belfort’s debauchery, but also idolizes and strives for it. This final shot supposes that Scorsese expected The Wolf of Wall Street to be misinterpreted.

Even films such as 500 Days of Summer face misinterpretation despite the film rather explicitly showing us that the protagonist, Tom Hansen, was not the victim in his failed relationship, but perhaps that he never took his partner’s desires into consideration. It is clear early on that Tom is never going to regard Summer, his love interest, as a dimensional person, and as the film is shown from his point of view, she never does gain dimension. Summer is merely the girl he has decided is “the one,” and when she does not reciprocate that feeling, Tom becomes persistent, vindictive, and victimizing. This film has faced quite a bit of misinterpretation since its release in 2009. Many viewers have perceived Tom the way he perceives himself in the film: as the victim. The actor who depicted Tom, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has even commented on this public response to the movie saying: “I would encourage anyone who has a crush on my character to watch it again and examine how selfish he is.” Why do so many viewers miss the true message: that Tom’s idealism of a girl who does not want a relationship is narcissistic and harmful? Why do we want to side with Tom? Because he is the protagonist, and as viewers and readers we have an inherent tendency to root for the protagonist. This tendency is not unlike to the tendency of humans to see ourselves as the hero rather than recognize our own wrongdoings.

These narratives may operate under the guise of self-criticism, but the effect often falls flat in part due to the viewer experience. As soon as we are presented with a protagonist we will step into his or her shoes, and we will begin to excuse the things they do and sympathize with them. We will believe that these terrible actions aren’t his fault, because Bojack's mother was cruel, or because we would also be tempted by greed and corruption like Jordan, or because every once in while we see evidence that Rick does care about his grandson. As soon as we begin to identify with a character, the element of criticism falls away because the viewer gives this character sympathy, and effectively, exoneration. Can we really call this self-criticism at all if the consumer misses the point?

  • About the Author
    Allie Quinn is an undergraduate student at Miami University in the Creative Writing program.

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