The Function of the Anti-Hero

The white male anti-hero: These characters are generally the protagonist of a story who is an unlikeable asshole but still somehow captivates audiences and captures their empathy (see the title character in “Dexter” for a great example). There are only rare examples of white women anti-heroes: usually those characters are written as “obnoxious” and “bitchy” (portrayed as totally unlikeable). And there only rare examples of men of color anti-heros: they are generally written as “thugs” and “villains” (portrayed as too evil for empathy).

The fact that this character is so specific in terms of the intersections of it’s identity, and yet so pervasive throughout popular culture, seems to suggest that a serves an important cultural purpose. I woul suggest that it serves to legitimize the white male sociopath as a valid personality trait that deserves to be empathized with, and even idolized. It reinforces the idea that twisted, violent, manipulative men are really just “complex”, and the rest of us should be intrigued by their darkness and casual cruelty. It constructs abusive men as needing to be nurtured and understood by women so they can continue their imperialist path of “saving” the world by dominating and destroying others. The body count associated with their “journey” continues to increase, all the while justified in the pursuit of the “greater good” that only they can see and have control over. The character becomes a symbol for the nation state: a metaphor for legitimizing the violent and tortuous conquests made under the guise of moral and philosophical superiority and progress. This character conditions us to empathize with abusive people (and therefore institutions) if that person (or institution) has redeeming qualities. Thus the white male anti-hero is such a popular media archetype because it serves to validate the greater machine of patriarchal imperialist capitalism and globalization.

This character may subconsciously insert itself into the bodies and minds of everyday men by normalizing partner abuse and assault. Note the brooding, possessive men who want to be excused of or even glorify their own abusive and manipulative behaviors because our popular culture tells him that these traits make him deep, philosophical, and complex- and if the people around him can empathize with Dexter, then certainly they should empathize with him.

Glorifying these traits in ourselves is different than having acceptance and empathy towards the problematic and traumatized parts of ourselves. Many people who have been traumatized and struggle with regulating their emotions appropriately don’t want to be mean and frightening to others. They want to do better, they want to change, and they want to take accountability; they accept the hurt parts of themselves as a means to work towards self improvement. The problem with these characters is that they don’t stop at having acceptance for the dark parts of ourselves, it is that they actually encourage the cultivation of cruelty and selfishness, and intentionally turn away from the possibility of growth into more socially responsible and ethical people.

Pop culture is fun and engaging, and I’m not suggesting that no one ever consume a piece of media that portrays the type of character I’m describing. Nearly everything is problematic to a degree and we need to enjoy ourselves when we can. At at the same time, be aware of and engage with the deeper meanings legitimized by what you consume.