« From the antihero to the bad hero: the apology of individualism and the destruction of sociality in contemporary series », by Clara Piraud

Spoiler alert: this article contains key elements from Game of Thrones (up to season 4) and a small spoiler from Desperate Housewives (season 8). Other series are talked about but no key elements are revealed about them.

NB: This article only reflects my own impressions. It is mainly based on my own sensibility and subjectivity and is a series of personal reflections (although it could be of interest to other people) rather than a truly systematic and scientific study.

Our heroes are sinful cripples. This may sound a bit exaggerated, but it is actually what the results of an analysis of our contemporary series tell us.

In a previous article, I briefly mentioned the concept of the hero. Traditionally, he is an exemplary character, meant to edify the audience, to inspire them, and to behave as a role model. He may have faults, flaws, but overall he aims to be virtuous and accomplishes noble actions. This concept has not entirely disappeared and we still know such heroes today (Harry Potter, to mention only one example). However, there are many series that show us cynical, sinful, albeit very charismatic heroes (much more than the virtuous ones!). What does this mean?

It should be noted that several of these heroes suffer from serious handicaps. Let’s take House and Tyrion Lannister and add further information. House really is disabled: the muscle of his thigh has been so severely damaged that he walks with difficulty and, above all, suffers from a pain so difficult to endure that he becomes addicted to his medication. Tyrion Lannister is a dwarf, which is not a handicap per se, but in his case others, and even his own family, despise him because of it. Both balance this handicap (a physical one for House, a social one for Tyrion) with their oratory skills, which makes them extremely brilliant compared to the other characters. For that matter, Tyrion explains as early as the first season (episode 2) that he tries to improve his intellectual side in order to compensate for his small height and the social contempt that it causes (he expresses it in a much funnier way, of course!). Paradoxically, these burdened characters become the most charismatic of the series, the most charming, even the most attractive. And yet, they are far from being virtuous. House is a cynical misanthrope who sees the practice of medicine as a puzzle to be solved and considers human life as an arithmetical calculation rather than as an end in itself. It is true that it leads to some very interesting ethical reflections, the other characters embodying different points of views and giving rise to thorny matters of conscience; but House is most often the one with the wittiest answer, who always finds a bon mot to say to his audience, which implicitly tips the scale in his favor. As far as Tyrion is concerned, he begins the series drunk and surrounded with prostitutes, and goes on this way for some time. Things get fuzzy when he meets Shae, a former prostitute, and seems to find in her some sort of redemption. The spectator appreciates that he does not assail the young Sansa who has been forced to marry him (an unexpected behavior, one has to recognize it, in a world where rape appears as completely anecdotal). But it actually announces a new decline: he kills, almost in one shot, the woman he loves and his own father (a taboo, if ever there were one). But in spite of all that, Tyrion remains the most likable character in the series, and the only one who is funny (just like House).

This phenomenon is not limited to these two characters, but seems to be more general. A single study of Game of Thrones would suffice to underline the series’ axiological ambiguity: the only character who is unequivocally bad seems to be Joffrey, all the others being extremely ambivalent. Of course, a character cannot be perfect, at the risk of falling into a syrupy remake of The Famous Five. But what is disturbing in these series is the moral blurred lines they present us with, so that one cannot tell right from wrong anymore.

I don’t need to remind you that Dexter is a serial killer who has a pronounced taste for blood and acts as an executioner (the series takes place in the USA where the death sentence is effective in most states, indeed, but it seems here that the debate was closed in advance). After he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, the main character of Breaking Bad has the brilliant idea to use his skills as a chemist to produce and deal methamphetamine… Barney, from How I Met Your Mother, who gradually stole the show from Ted, both in the story and in the spectators’ hearts, is nothing but a manipulative and misogynistic sex addict (yet he is the one who has made us laugh the most and he plays the leading role in the best episodes). We have as little luck trying to find a single ounce of virtue in historical series such as Rome or The Tudors, in which the screenwriters made sure to fill the empty spaces left by history with brand-new vices (incest, sadomasochism, manipulation…). I will not affront the reader by reminding him that a historical story tells us more about our time than it does about the period it deals with…

And what does this tell us, in the end? Why do we try to enjoy and have people enjoy vice, perversion, wickedness, and manipulation? Why are our heroes ill, both physically and mentally? Why are charisma, cleverness, and virtuosity so much linked to these “antiheroes”, as one hears so frequently? Has the “anti” actually become the norm? Are we living in a lame and painful time, as if created in House’s image? Do we value vice more than virtue?

What is patent is that in series are very seldom developed feelings of solidarity, charity, generosity. Few acts are gratuitous and selfless; all the acts of the characters seem to be part of a vast geopolitical project in which everyone would be a body of state in full exercise of its will to power. It is, for instance, particularly blatant in Desperate Housewives where the most intimate relationships these women have with their husbands and children are made of manipulation and cold-blooded calculations. Paradoxically, these Machiavellian plans prove to be particularly entertaining, and the series gets less and less interesting when it becomes more unctuous and moralizing, especially after the five-year leap forward which occurs at the end of season 4 (in my view, the only genuinely moving scene is the one in which Gaby takes a drunk Carlos home, forgetting for once her social image to help her husband who has fallen into alcoholism (season 8, episode 5), but this is a purely personal opinion).

In general, series present us selfishness, contempt, in short individualism, as attractive qualities. Now I’ve said the word. Could series respond to a certain ideology, the dominant ideology, that is to say neoliberalism, the ideology behind the phrase “every man for himself”? If it is to work, neoliberalism has to annihilate social struggles; and what is easier than destroying them at the source? By making the apology of individualism and treating generous actions with contempt, these series tend to dissolve any solidarity that could (and should) appear to face oppression. Margaret Thatcher said it herself: “There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women”. I do not say that this is a “conspiracy”, because I know that this word is poorly looked upon nowadays. It might prove wiser to imagine some sort of vicious circle: these characters make the audience laugh with vice and disrespect; the spectators find themselves wanting more; they make us believe that we love that; it then becomes the only way that screenwriters will consider for their stories, and so on… It is true that one finds (I find?) it difficult to think of humor without a certain amount of repartee in it, and that often implies contempt.

It is as a great fan of series that I wonder about all these questions. I wonder about the soundness of what I watch, about the influence it could have upon me, upon us. Are we condemned to watch only Plus belle la vie* and Little House on the Prairie in order to remain of sound mind (and soul)? What a joyful prospect…

Hannah Arendt used to say that we found ourselves in a gap between past and future and that we had lost touch with tradition; she put her hope in the neoi, the newcomers upon the earth, who would be able to create again. Nietzsche brilliantly identified the death of God that disconnected us from Christian (or indeed any kind of religious) values; he called for us to invent new ones, but which are they? As for him, Spengler spoke of the decline of the West…

I would like to thank Emilie Georges for helping me translate my article into English.

Clara Piraud

* A successful French soap opera.