Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Why Do We Love the Anti-Hero?

Remember Han Solo? That smarmy, proud, devil-may-care mercenary from the "Stars Wars" movies? As best I can remember, I think he's the first "anti-hero" I loved. After Han, I think the next one for me was the narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground. Since then, I've been collecting them like some sort of neurotic hobbyist.

According to Wikipedia (god bless it), an anti-hero is a "protagonist who is lacking the traditional heroic attitudes and qualities, and instead possesses character traits that are antithetical to heroism." That's right... character traits that are antithetical to heroism. In the case of Han Solo, this mostly meant that he was self-interested, capitalistic, and--in a clever combination of both--only interested in the girl (who just so happened to be a princess). In the case of Notes From Underground, the narrator is generally despicable, even to himself, dyspeptic, bitterly resentful, though somehow thoughtful and reflective enough to seem, well, heroic... in that "anti-" kind of way.

I've noticed over the last several years that we are being saturated with antiheroes. My new favorite is Dexter (pictured left), from the Showtime series Dexter. He's a serial killer, working "undercover" as a blood-spatter expert for the Miami-Dade police department. Dexter only kills criminals who slipped through the system and escaped their rightful punishment by the state. Dexter follows a "code." He has a conscience. He also, incidentally, cuts his victims up into to pieces and dumps them in the ocean. Nobody's perfect.

My second favorite antihero, if you pinched off the I.V. supply that was feeding me my desperately needed pain medication and made me choose, would be Dr. Gregory House from the FOX television series House. Dr. House abuses his subordinates, disrespects his superiors, and has a bedside manner rivaled only by Nurse Ratchet. He's also a misogynist, a cripple, a drug addict and an atheist. But he's a brilliiant surgeon and medical problem-solver, and he is has an uncanny ability to intuit the vicissitudes of human health in a way that would make Plato proud.

There's also Tony Soprano, of course, who may not be with us anymore, but we'll never know that for sure, I suspect. Tony's got problems. But he likes to talk about them with his therapist and, hence, is in touch with his own "vulnerability." Tony runs a strip joint called the "Bada Bing"... oh yeah, and also a New Jersey crime family. He has some serious mommy issues.

People have told me that Jack Bauer of the series 24 is also an antihero, but I don't watch that program. I think I might be the only person in America who doesn't.

The point here is, we love our antiheroes. But why? Is this some reaction against all that is sacred and holy in our moral code? Are we embracing a side of ourselves that is fundamentally anti-Greek, anti-Christian? Do we even know what a "hero" looks like anynmore?

Oh yeah, and I forgot Batman. And Sam Malone (from Cheers).


Doctor J said...

I'm also curious whether or not there are any female antiheroes? And don't say Carrie Bradshaw from *Sex and the City*... she doesn't count. Although Samantha might...

Booga Face said...

But Han Solo becomes a hero at the end of Star Wars, let's not forget. Not all heroes start out as heroes.

How about Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye?

Maybe all women are anti-heros according to wikipedia's definition -- "not heros in the traditional sense" (the traditional sense being very gendered in its formulation). One of my favorites, Hester Prynne, taking on the Puritan patriarchal order.

Is la Femme Nikita a hero or an anti-hero?

Brooke said...

I think antiheroes are so popular because they go beyond typical, overly simplistic black and white, good and evil dualities to expose something we can *all* relate to: the ambiguities of life. With these characters, we love to hate them and hate to love them, and yet, somehow, we're okay with that. It's rather uplifting, actually.

As to female antiheroes, well, I'm rather disappointed at how much harder it is to come up with examples of them. Maybe Elphaba from Wicked? The female characters from The Hours? Somehow they don't quite fit the archetype of antihero in the same way, though...

Brooke said...

Some other favorite antihero notables:

-The Phantom of the Opera
-Don Giovanni
-Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment)
-Humbert Humbert (Lolita)

Actually, now on second thought, there are LOTS of female anti-heroes in opera and musicals. Consider:

-Evita (obviously a historical personality, too)
-Musetta (La Boheme)

It seems without the antihero, male or female, all operas would cease to exist!

I'm having way to much fun with this. Gotta get back to Russian translations...

Doctor J said...

I don't know if those opera ones count, Brooke. I mean, there's a difference between a "tragic hero(ine)" and an anti-hero, right?

Steven, I think Hester Pryne fits in the tragic heroine category (see above). Holden Caulfield is definitely an anti-hero, but I never really liked Catcher in the Rye (thus saving myself from a life of serial-killing, I suspect.)

Brunson said...

If you accept Batman as an anti-hero (which I have reservations about because he doesn't kill - Wolverine is a better example), there are several female anti-hero's in comic books. The most prominent these days is probably Renee Montoya, the new Question - a (recovering) alcoholic with bonus points in the "nontraditional" category for being a Hispanic lesbian. On the Marvel side of the fence you have Misty Knight et al. in Heroes for Hire who do perform heroic feats for pay.

I am geeky in several ways.

Booga Face said...

No, quite wrong -- Hester is not a tragic hero.

A tragic hero (as I know you already know) is a hero whose own character leads to his/her own downfall, and so tragic irony is when the hero's effort to prevent a bad thing end up causing the bad thing. Usually the hero is aware of this irony as it's unfolding, and so we the audience get lots of long monologues from him or her about it.

Hester (and you're treading on my turf here, you must realize, as I've taught this novel twice) in the opening scene of The Scarlet Letter is a sinner in the eyes of her community. Despite pressure from the Puritan state apparatus, she refuses to reveal the name of her lover. And by the end of the novel, she has transformed the meaning of the "A" to signify "able" as she comes to occupy an important position in her community -- caring for others and creating an alternative community that subverts the patriarchal authority. Instead of running away or disowning her social stigma, she owns it and changes it. Not tragic it all, as the graphic novel "The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom" points out with gusto.

Read the novel again. As an analysis of signs, it's equal to your boy Jacques.

Doctor J said...

Sorry for the delay in responding, but I only just turned in my grades for the semester... (YEAH!)

I certainly want to tread lightly on what is obviously your area of expertise, but I still have a few questions about your Hester Pryne claims. First, what it is about Hester's character that is "antithetical" to heroism? I mean, just because she is "a sinner in the eyes of her community" doesn't mean (as anyone who finishes the novel comes to understand, I hope) that she is a "sinner" in fact. Her most significant character traits, even as you describe them, are her loyalty to her lover, her steadfastness in her personal conviction, her commitment to justice beyond the law, and her actualizing of ownership of her autonomy. Hmmmm... who does that remind me of?.... Oh yeah, ANTIGONE.

What we come to see in Hester Pryne, I think, is that she *does* in fact possess "heroic" character traits, despite the fact that she lives in a community that demonizes her, right? That public/private conflict is what makes her story "tragic" in a way, but maintains her as a heroine, and not an anti-heroine.

One more (minor) point. I don't think it's exactly right to say that a "tragic hero is a hero whose own character leads to his/her downfall." The Greek *hamartia*, which is often translated as "tragic flaw", doesn't really mean that. It just means "error" (like missing the mark when you shoot an arrow), and according to Aristotle, it can happen to anyone, even and especially those without what we would call "character flaws." In fact, that is what makes tragedy "tragic" in Aristotle's analysis... that we (the audience) see in the story something that could happen to any of us, something universal in the particular, which is ultimately educative. What the audience is "supposed" to think after watching a tragic hero's downfall is something like "there but for the grace of god go I" and NOT "what a monster!"

The anti-hero, on the other hand, MUST in some way be a monster to us, even when s/he also seems heroic. I'm not sure Hester Pryne is ever "monstrous"...

kgrady said...

god, do i love dexter. the show AND the man. the thing is, it's not his vigilante justice that i admire him for, which i think complicates his status as an anti-hero. actually, i really have a hard time explaining why i like him, even to myself.

han solo, on the other hand, not so much of a problem. i would like to be han solo. he is one of two people in the star wars franchise badass enough to not give a crap about the force. and the other is boba fett. enough said.

Doctor J said...

Yeah, the *Dexter* finale was on last night and I was all set to be disappointed... BUT I WASN'T!!! I swear, the writers of that show should get some sort of prize... but a super-dooper prize that hasn't even been invented yet and for which noone else could possibly qualify. It's THAT good.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I think "Dexter" may be the best television program EVER.

Booga Face said...

Antigone dies. Hester doesn't.

I agree with you that Hester is a hero. Absolutely. Sorry if that wasn't clear. (And so is Han Solo by the way -- he gets a medal at the end.) But not in the "traditional sense" as you defined it in your blog... and you seem to have forgotten that I was only considering Hester an anti-hero in support of my hypothesis that all female heros are anti-heros simply by being female. And I was just riffing on that hypothesis, not asserting. So you're switching definitions on me -- I cry foul!!!

But admittedly, I was deliberately fucking with the concept of the anti-hero to begin with, so I'm already playing with a yellow card, I guess.

And I see what you mean about tragic flaw in Aristotle, but you left out the key ingredient of all tragedy -- irony. Tragedy is always ironic. Always. Without irony (i.e., without a story), then it's just philosophy... or a word that news-anchors say to appear caring.

For me, Scarlet Letter is not a tragedy -- and that's precisely why it's good. (That was Hawthorne's innovation -- a feminist innovation in my view-- since in almost all of the other "fallen women" stories that were popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the heroine dies at the end... and so young girls were supposed to read this shit and learn a fucking stupid lesson from it.)

Doctor J said...

You don't have to die to be a tragic hero. See Oedipus.

Okay, Steven, I agree we've both been playing a little unfair. I should have said (much, much earlier in this conversation) that I really liked your proposition that all women are "anti-heroes" in a way. But all along, you seemed to be concentraing on the part of the anti-hero definition that emphasized the "non-traditional" while I was concentrating on the part that emphasized the "antithetical to heroism." Therein lies most of the confusion, I think.

Glamourbrain said...

I really enjoyed this discussion, and linked to it today in my consideration of the antiheroine. Thanks!