The Problem of the Protagonist: A Question of Morality and Subjectivity
Fairly soon, I'm going to begin writing a series on Detoxifying Masculinity – it will be an ongoing series and not everything we put up here will have to do with it (not even everything I put up here will have to do with it,) but in considering that topic, I happened upon another one that I wanted to discuss, and I'm going to address it now.
One of the theories with the most currency in media studies is called “cultivation theory” and it's been a subject of much public debate for a good deal of my life, mostly due to widespread misunderstanding, though it is widely accepted in academic circles. I feel it's a fairly intuitive idea: we make sense of the world by looking at the stories we tell about it. One example of this is violent media – first person shooters, action movies, true crime podcasts, et cetera – which the popular reading of cultivation theory would say makes people more violent. A more accurate reading of the theory would be that while it makes some people (those already inclined to use violence) more violent, the vast majority of people become more fearful, as they are receiving the message that the world is more violent than it outwardly appears.
Possibly one of the best analyses of these ideas can be found in Roland Barthes Mythologies series. Specifically the essay “Toys”, where he explores how the toys that we present Children with are often a means of training them to be an adult. (As an aside, his essay on professional wrestling is one of my favorite essays. I would highly recommend reading it.)
There is another effect, I believe, that is somewhat more pernicious and which we need to focus on: I believe that the way that we tell stories has a major influence on the way that we conceive of selfhood and acceptable behaviors, and I think that there are some easy ways we can adjust how we construct our narratives that would be helpful and possibly lead to new and interesting story shapes.
For a very, very long time, philosophers have been grappling with the issue of Subjectivity – the quality a person, animal, or thing has of Being-for-Itself and being able to perceive the world. When I say a very long time, I mean since the Enlightenment. René Descartes – the philosopher I would most like to throw water balloons at – dealt with it. Other philosophers have taken it up, there's a whole lot of dead trees and ink that have gone in to this conversation, and I'm not going to write a more well-thought out explanation of Subjectivity than these philosophers. It's not something I'm even trying to do here.
What I do think, though, is that what coheres the self, what makes it possible to have a unified vision of reality, is the fact that we tell ourselves stories about reality. I would go so far as to say that being a person is to be a self-writing story. However, I also wish to emphasize that I'm not stating this as a counterpoint to Cultivation Theory. We are self-writing stories, but we are influenced by the stories we are exposed to.
Here's the upshot: the main model of subjectivity for contemporary people is the main character. Not a particular main character, but the way that the narratives we surround ourselves with handle their main characters. We see ourselves – many of us at least – as the main characters of our lives. If we accept this premise, then how are we to understand the effects of stories that show characters failing to grow? Or stories where what is right is whatever their hero is doing? Or stories where characters are rewarded for being unpleasant to those around them?
I feel like this is part of the cultural mechanism for something I’m calling the Epistemic Crisis.
People adopt behaviors commensurate with those of characters in the narratives they consume. This is most readily apparent with feminist literary criticism, examining how the ideas and tropes of toxic masculinity propagate through culture. We lionize characters like Breaking Bad's Walter White, or Rick and Morty's Rick Sanchez, or Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of the lead in Sherlock. Because these characters are portrayed with traits that viewers like for obvious reasons (competence is a big one,) they are led to approve of these characters and sympathize with them and some of them are led to emulate some of the manner of these characters.
Given our culture's emphasis on stories about exceptional people who happen to be flawed (or flawed people who happen to be exceptional,) this leads people to think that they are exceptional and that it's okay for them to be unpleasant to those around them, because that's simply how all of our heroes are and we love them, right?
In addition, there's a tendency to use tribalism instead of morality to determine how things in a narrative goes: we are sympathetic towards the protagonist due to the point of view instead of due to the fact that we agree with their ideas. A moment of thinking about a lot of major narratives will reveal that there is horror lurking underneath: Doctor Who comes to mind immediately – at various points in the series, the lead character commits a number of questionable acts or allows them to be committed, up to and including genocide. In addition to this, though, consider also the popular 90s sitcom Friends – in each episode, we're expected to sympathize with characters who are manipulative and unpleasant. These two examples sit at opposite ends of a ladder, but the intermediate steps are there.
None of this is new thinking.
What can be new is how we approach it. Look, it's not possible or desirable to fix this through didactic moralizing. Stories that go out of their way to teach a message are going to be awful to sit through – and thus audiences won't. There are, however, a number of approaches that can be taken that can improve things. Morally compromised characters, and anti-heroes in general, are compelling: while you can certainly have a well-written story without them, I don't think it's worthwhile to try to circle around and skip using them. Hell, I wrote a whole essay in which I talk about how I heavily identify with a number of stories about morally compromised failures.
My gripe here isn't that these are bad characters, it's that their effect on society shows that there's a certain amount of unconsidered work going on here that needs to be considered. You need to think about why you're telling the story and what the point of it is. It's not fiction's job to elevate or edify, but you need to be aware that stories have an effect.
First, I think there needs to be a differentiation made between people who are unpleasant to be around and morally compromise people. Consider the original Star Wars trilogy. There's a lot there that surrounds the central moral issue that Luke Skywalker deals with: he had to confront his father to save the Galaxy, and there was a great deal of hand-wringing on his part about whether he was able to do it without killing his father.
As maligned as the third movie in the original trilogy is, there's a brilliant bit of storytelling in the final act, where Luke refuses to kill his father and show empathy. He refused to be a weapon used by his mentors and won by forging a human connection with someone who was thought to be beyond such things. This doesn't erase Darth Vader's wrongdoing: empathy and human connection don't require that. Given his situation, Luke is a textbook example of a morally compromised person: his father is his enemy. There is no possibility of looking at the situation objectively, and in many ways (behind the raw spectacle of the films and the capitalist injunction to produce money through merchandising) the films grapple with finding a way to move beyond the objectivity/subjectivity dichotomy. Despite the moral compromise, Luke is still portrayed as a good person (and I would say successfully.)
Consider also Dale Cooper, of Twin Peaks. While hardly an anti-hero in the original series, he still manages to be both compelling and genuinely good. He is eccentric, yes, and occasionally unpleasant, especially in the course of doing his job, but he is portrayed (effectively, I would say,) as having an unwavering moral compass. This causes him to break with the dominant morality of his day (the late 1980s/early 1990s) where he refuses, respectfully, the advances of an attractive young woman who is technically of legal age but still far too young for him, and displays respect for a coworker who is a transwoman.
What makes Dale Cooper interesting isn't the fact that he is good at enacting violence or because he has a snappy wit – nor is what makes him interesting the fact that his morality is out-of-step with the world around him in a way that makes him ahead of the times. What makes Dale Cooper interesting is the fact that this is the case and he still tries and fails. He repeatedly tries, and the mystery (at least early on) keeps pushing him back, keeps refusing to unravel in front of him, and at no point is his failure because he is too good of a person. It's because he's human and the evil he wrestles with isn't.
A case could also be made for Star Trek: The Next Generation's Jean-Luc Picard, though his character is often out of focus. Due to Gene Roddenberry's handling of the setting, all of the characters were this to some extent or another (he actually forbade stories about conflicts between members of the crew, and it notably improved when this rule was relaxed.) Picard is very much like an older Cooper – both competent and morally unimpeachable – but we watch, over the course of the series, as he is forced to perform an atrocity and then try to come back from it. Given the nature of the setting, almost no one (outside of the lead in the followup series Deep Space 9, Commander Sisko) hold his actions against him, as he wasn't under his own control, but it's clear from the way the series plays out that he is grappling with it and trying to satisfy his own moral standards as he works to come back from it.
So, that's one approach: realize that “morally complicated” and “slightly less evil than the villain” aren't necessarily synonyms. For examples of how this might play out in a comedy setting, I would recommend looking at the sitcom Brooklyn 99.
Another approach could be to decenter the individual a bit: a true ensemble show, where there is no one centerpiece character, and each individual present is given equal weight, might have a similarly desirable effect. If no one person is given the status as sole protagonist, it might succeed in convincing people to consider others as equally important, as heroes of other stories.
(As a caveat, before anyone mentions it in a comment: I stopped watching Game of Thrones halfway into the second season. It may be a good example, it may be the best television ever, but I don't have HBO, so...yeah.)
It seems to me that spreading out the focus, and giving a picture not of a person living a life but a group struggling to overcome a problem, each with their own foibles and weaknesses, would be more compelling than doing a deep dive into one specific person.
I think a good example of this done well is the Netflix series Stranger Things – in Season one, there are three interconnected but partitioned-off narratives that proceed simultaneously (a Kids-on-Bikes adventure story, a teen horror plot, and a government conspiracy story,) each with its own limited cast of characters. The way that these stories come together near the end, with the various plots spilling into each other and everyone getting a moment to shine, seemed to me to be a unique way to end the story, and the show runners managed to repeat the same feat the second season (with, admittedly, some dead wood) that almost made me forget the fact that one segment of the show made me listen to the song “Wango Tango” by Ted Nugent.
Of course, one of the principle causes for the issue I'm talking about is simply the lack of even character development in contemporary media: Rick Sanchez, of Rick and Morty, doesn't change.
Walt's development, in Breaking Bad, stalls out in late Season 3: to me, it seems like he's as bad as he could be and the rest of the series was just tracking the fallout. The real tragedy, in my opinion, is that the series is a character study of Walt and not more of an ensemble piece – because it would have been easy to place equal weight on Walt and Jesse Pinkman, who has an opposite character arc, just with less focus on it, that similarly stalls out.
Even so, the fact that the show even had character development is a bonus. Most media produced now seems less interested in showing a character as a person living a life and more interested in drawing an archetype of a character. Every time Marvel releases a movie, I feel like I have to watch Robert Downey, Jr. learn the same lesson. Every time a new Batman movie is released, we have to rehash the exact same character arc, to the point where followups don't have new character arcs.
In short, when the character is an archetype, the goal isn't to show character development, it's to repeat the beats, ritualistically, that allow that character to be that character. This only works when there's a huge gap between instances of that character – I wouldn't mind seeing Superman's origin again, if I had to wait twenty years to go into it, for example. This is part of why Mad Max: Fury Road worked: the title character (who was basically out of focus, an add-on to another character's story,) is fundamentally the same, but the time between the original and the followup, along with the change in focus, allows it to work.
So, to summarize: just as it is important to consider how you present yourself in day-to-day life, when you are crafting a narrative it is important to consider how you are presenting your central character. Consider asking yourself: why is this my protagonist? What standards are they living up to? What standards is it important that they're not living up to? How do they fail? How do they grow and change over the course of the story? Might your decisions lead to an innocent person hearing a Ted Nugent song? You shouldn't necessarily abandon unsympathetic main characters, but you should be employing them with purpose because, if you are successful, people may take what you write or film as some statement about how the world is or should be, and you need to make sure that it's a statement you're comfortable making.