Dirk Knemeyer

Sympathy: a redemption story

Once Upon a Time in modern popular culture, there were clear Heroes and Villains. My earliest memories of such things were seen in the old U.S. propaganda movies of World War 2 (Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini = Evil; The Allies = Pure as the White-Driven Snow), re-runs of the 1960’s era Batman TV show (Batman and Robin = Heroes; Virtually Everyone Else in a Goofy Costume = Villains). Then, moving forward, from The A-Team to Miami Vice to Hulk Hogan saying his prayers and eating his vitamins in juxtaposition to evil vermin like Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik, there was no doubt about who we should cheer for, identify with and hope would prove victorious. (Full disclosure: I personally rooted for Rowdy Roddy Piper to groin shot Hulk Hogan when Piper was still a Despicable Bad Guy, but that doesn’t change the general cultural positioning) It was literally as clear as black-and-white and consistent across most every mainstream cultural artifact being produced.

In the 1990’s, something changed. There was a consistent undertone of the anti-hero, of the villain who was more popular or otherwise intentionally positioned for the viewer to identify with as opposed to the “actual” hero. At some level, this was interesting. The somewhat bland black-and-white narrative was deepened with shades of grey. Not everything was obvious; not everything was stereotyped. It was novel and somewhat more like real-life. It was popular; it persisted.

At some point over the past 15 years, that has twisted into something different, something I think is unhealthy, wrong-minded and in violation of basic human decency. I’m talking about a seeming rash of the most evil, vile and despicable characters being turned into sympathetic heroes who are positioned to gain the adulation and rooting interest of the viewer. Two examples in particular have really struck me:

1. Sylar on Heroes. In the first season of Heroes, Sylar was the Ultimate Villain: a serial killer who could steal the power of other heroes if he would kill them with his unique method of cutting off the tops of their heads. It was gory. Uncomfortable to watch. The Sylar character was so vicious as he killed literally double-digit other characters by grossly and graphically cutting off their heads – including killing his own mother! He was the epitome of evil, and the entire season culminated with his being defeated by the efforts of a variety of heroes.

Fast forward to the second and third seasons. Sylar has been turned into a sympathetic figure. The storylines and motivations are jerked around enough to make it difficult to communicate how they justify the fact we should root for Sylar, but they range from his having been an orphan, to his becoming a parent, to his siding with Good, to his killing villains. Some combination or all of this, apparently, is enough to make Sylar a character we should identify with and root for.

THE MAN WAS A SERIAL KILLER WHO CUT OFF THE HEADS OF DOZENS OF PEOPLE, IN HORRIBLE GRAPHIC AND GORY DETAIL, INCLUDING HIS MOTHER. AND NOW WE WERE BEING MANIPULATED TO ROOT FOR HIM!

Not only am I done with Heroes, but I’m left reeling that a show would even attempt such a transformation, let alone on one of the large networks at an early time slot.

2. Dexter on Dexter. Another serial killer whom the writers want us to cuddle with like a Teddy bear. Unlike Sylar, Dexter was the main character of his show and the hero from the beginning. A hero that was a serial killer. In Dexter’s case, they justify it: he is a forensic investigator who only kills those who are themselves criminals and have escaped the arm of the law. Additionally, as you learn over the course of the first season, Dexter has perhaps the most horrific possible motivation and reason to have turned into a serial killer, the butchery of his mother in such a circumstance that I won’t even repeat, so vile it is. Almost every episode Dexter murders someone in a clinical and graphic way. Almost every episode, the writers attempt to make us feel sorry for Dexter and even see ourselves in him.

First, good was good and evil was evil.

Then, there were many shades of grey, not very much clear black and white, and our heroes were more complicated.

Now, evil is good and good is…well, there really isn’t any good. Using these two examples, in Heroes, the central theme seems to be an obfuscation of truth, to the point that it is almost impossible to tell who is “really” good, with undertones that, in fact, they may pretty much all be evil. In Dexter, all of Dexter’s police colleagues are flawed – typically deeply so: corrupt, manipulative, larcenous, cheating, adultering. There is no “good” among them. The closest to truly “good” are the geeky lab rats who are made to be clueless buffoons, derided by the more normal but deeply corrupt others. The evil Dexter is good and the rest are just, well, not very likable.

I want to croon like Paula Cole: where is my John Wayne? Where is my happy ending? Where HAVE all the cowboys gone?

Listen: I have a graduate degree in popular culture so I’m well-versed in the fact that complicated narratives and notions of good and evil are volatile over all of human history. But I’ve been alive for 35+ years now in this specific culture, and the move from the preponderance of cultural artifacts moving from a very clean and clear black-and-white, to a muddy shades of grey, to the weird trend now of taking the most evil, horrible, reprehensible characters and trying to make us identify with, see them as victims and root for them in the context of their doing things like grossly and inhumanely killing others, well…something is wrong. For us to be at this point, where our entertainment is found in identifying with serial killers and rooting for them to butcher others…I don’t have words to properly communicate the issues inherent in all of this.

We all have motivations for what we do; we all have a backstory and a reason why we are who we are today. Some of us are not very admirable or likable people, and we may well have good and sound reasons why, sad reasons that justify not being nice people. That’s just life. But what is the strong cultural pull toward making mainstream cultural artifacts that glorify and try to make heroes of the MOST evil, MOST contemptible, MOST horrendous of humans and their behaviours? What on Earth is going on here? I for one wouldn’t mind a nice, easy, straightforward narrative where I am presented with a largely admirable, good and well-functioning protagonist to root for. I mean, with all of these huggable and lovable serial killers running around, something as abnormal and counter-cultural as a plain-vanilla and uncomplicated hero looks pretty appealing right about now. In the meantime, I will leave cheering for the serial killers to the rest of you.

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