There has been a slowly emerging trend in fiction over the last fifteen years or so. Replacing the simple goodness of protagonists such as King Arthur and the simpleminded goodness of heroines such as Snow White, we have a growing contingent of more complicated, morally ambiguous characters taking center stage in our stories. Dubious heroes such as Batman and John Constantine exist only to fight off worser evils (and often their “good deeds” are almost coincidental to their battles against their own, personal demons). The traditional antagonists of our childhood have taken on new shades of human character and societal misuse, as in the cases of the Wicked Witch of the West in Wicked or Morgan Le Fay in The Mists of Avalon. We have a bevy of new “bad guys” at center stage, some of them irresistible in spite of their villainy (Thomas Crown, for example, or Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects), and some without any attempt whatsoever to justify their actions through sympathetic moments or incidental benefits to humanity, as is the case with Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player. Why, as a culture, are our stories evolving in such a way? What is the appeal in watching the bad guys win?
A Traditional Antihero
One of the few traditional tales which defies the “Prince Charming” standard is that of Robin Hood. Unlike most of the heroes of his time, Mr. Hood does not employ honourable means to achieve his ends. Armed robbery is hardly a socially acceptable pastime, not to mention his unfortunate habit of camping out in the woods indefinitely, marking him even on the surface as a throwback to our savage ancestry. In order to find the roots of our current Bad Guy epidemic, we might do well to examine how such a questionable character as Robin Hood could have come to prominence and continued to exist for so long in the face of his more civilized counterparts.
Mentions of Robin Hood stretch back to the thirteenth century, though at this time the reference seems to be used mainly as a label for any brigand, indicating that the legends themselves may have originated well before that time. The first reference we have to the Robin Hood stories themselves is in the fourteenth century, in Piers Plowman by William Langland, where a priest confesses that he is better familiar with the stories of Robin Hood than with the Pater Noster. Over the next six hundred years, Robin Hood goes through a variety of transformations which appear to have as their primary aim the moral improvement of our character. The sheriff of Nottingham becomes progressively more evil and oppressive, Robin himself becomes more pious, earns a title (Earl of Loxley) and a love interest, and moves from attacking all and sundry to the now traditional “rob from the rich and give to the poor”. Even with these upgrades, however, he remains at his core a rebel, a murderer, and a thief…and we love him for it.
At the time of his probable origin, the average English peasant was caught between the rule of the nobility and the power of the Church. Life was hard and frequently unjust, and there was no recourse for the downtrodden or disenfranchised. Though the original Robin did not set things to rights for the commoner so much as wreak havoc on all who got in his way, even this near-random violence was a cathartic exercise for the listener. As the years passed and the culture evolved, so did his characteristics, becoming more of a refined rebel serving our cause than a literary manifestation of our hidden rage. Effectively, as a tool he became more finely honed, he began picking his battles, using his anger as a tool, rather than a blunt weapon. As a culture, we were doing this as well, engaging in revolutions and targeted efforts, and eventually discovering what it meant to try to “change the system from within”.
When the Lines Become Blurry
Our modern culture is not one of repressed peasantry and domineering nobles, so much as an overwhelming barrage of information. The average American watches four to seven hours of television a day, has a cell phone, and internet access. Through these means he follows the lives and stories of people all over the world. He is aware of the nearly 17,000 homicides that happen annually in the United States alone. He hears about child molesters, poisoners, priests who have broken their vows, dirty politicians, terrorists, abused animals, and every imaginable act of random cruelty and violence imaginable on a daily basis. Whereas back in Robin Hood’s time, someone in your village molesting and murdering a child was a once in a lifetime event, and provided gossip and speculation for years after the lynching party had done their work, now that the world is our village we are often so overwhelmed by the evil-doers in our midst that we can’t even fully process one horror before we are listening to another. Add to this the fact that we rarely, in our global gossip sessions, hear stories of great heroism or kindness undertaken by our fellow “villagers”, and the sense of powerlessness and fear that many experience becomes an understandable phenomenon. Based on our input, the evil-doers outnumber us at least ten to one. We cannot fight them all, we cannot imprison them all, hell — we cannot even find them all. If we could only understand what makes people cruel, crazy, and unkind, perhaps we could find a way to save ourselves, a way to stop the spiraling madness or at least figure out the best place to hide, the place where the raging maniacs of the world will not think to look. At the very least, if we could get into their heads, perhaps we could understand why they make the choices they do, and they would seem less monstrous and frightening.
And that’s where our mythology comes in. Through our stories, we explore the parts of our existence that we might not know how to face in real life. The Grimm brothers, in their time, detailed many of the dark alleys of the psyche in their sometimes gruesome tales. Alice in Wonderland was a wonderful insight into how to proceed in a world which appears to have lost it’s meaning (or possibly a lesson on how to deal with large doses of hallucinogens, depending). Peter Pan lets us examine the joys and perils of holding fast to the childlike aspects of ourselves, and Snow White allows us to examine the consequences of personal vanity. The thing that all these tales have in common, of course, is that the Bad Guy never wins, and that is appropriate when you consider that these characters usually stood to represent careful lessons in what not to do. In modern times, however, we are in need of a different understanding. What makes the Bad Guy tick? And for that matter, how can we tell the Bad Guys from the Good Guys, in a world with very few white horses and shining swords?
Take Hellboy, for example. A huge, red, demon, literally from hell, who goes around stopping evil from taking over the world. Not exactly a simple Good Guy, and almost certainly not the one you would choose from a group of potentials. Hardly the most complicated character in our repertoire, but a good example of how you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, and how even the most effective Good Guys have their little frailties. So how about Jack Bauer? Ostensibly a Good Guy, but one with frequent bouts of apparent psychosis and a complete disregard for the usual Good Guy ethical package. In fact, despite any admiration we may hold for Jack’s determination and ability to succeed at whatever his latest mission is, he is hardly a man you would want to meet. Likewise, John Constantine is hardly a sympathetic character, any good he manages to achieve being largely incidental to his battle against his personal demons, and yet we admire his skill and intelligence. Beyond that, both Jack and John give us a glimpse into how people come to do unpleasant, even amoral things. Observing their stories, we can find some sympathy with their choices, even if we cannot always come so far as to condone them. And that, really, is the point of the exercise. If we can make that leap, we can step into the shoes of anyone, whether they be madman or monster, in an attempt to confront our fear by examining it from the inside-out.
The Communal Dreamscape
It is often argued that the media is contributing to the “moral decline” of our culture, with its willingness to portray morally ambiguous characters through every outlet. It seems obvious, however, that this is rather putting the cart before the horse. The madness, the corruption, and the desperation that lead people to do “bad” things are already there, running rampant in our society. We battle with frustration, fear, and anger on a daily basis, compounded by our own sense of impotence. Every day a few of us go down to the strain of it all, and watching their collapse only adds to the worries of the remainder. On some level, most of us understand that we have in many ways created a culture that is beyond our capacity to process and understand, and we are struggling to catch up to our creation.
It is only through examination of what we have wrought that we can eventually come to terms with it, and from there figure out how to repair that which must be mended in order to move on. Though the large majority do not approach this process consciously, we are all on some level thinking and processing the data all the time, reaching conclusions without ever realizing we are doing it. Just as each night’s sleep provides us all an arena to conceptualize our fondest desires and fantasies, but also our worst fears and furies, the fiction of a culture is the public arena for the dreams and nightmares of us all. It is here that we come to a public consensus on the coveted, but it is also here where we expose our shared demons, working on some unconscious level to find the key that will enable us to let go of our fear.