I teach a class on cultural criticism, and each student leads a twenty-minute discussion on an article of his or her choosing from the recent press. On Monday, a student brought in Emily Nussbaum's article on “the female bad fan.”

The bad fan is the “loyal viewer, often a guy, who views antiheroes as heroes”—who sees Walter White or Frank Underwood as the guy to be emulated, who “shrugs off any notion of moral complexity” and roots for Walt's wife Skyler or any of Frank's adversaries to be eliminated.

There's a parallel, Nussbaum says, in shows like The Mindy Project:

The topic came up during my conversation at The New Yorker Festival with Mindy Kaling, the creator and star of “The Mindy Project.” As we talked, Kaling made a strong case for one way in which her series has been misunderstood: her idea for Mindy Lahiri, she said, wasn’t a spunky role model like Mary Tyler Moore. She also wasn’t trying to create a flawed comic protagonist with a voice-of-reason quality, in the tradition of Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope. Instead, she was going for the Michael Scott, the Larry David, the Kenny Powers—truly screwed-up bigots and basket cases who were, nonetheless, the rowdy centers of their respective shows.

The Mindy Project—and other shows like Girls and Veep and Inside Amy Schumer and more—present (presumably mostly female) viewers with protagonists not really meant to be emulated; they're just characters, and they're funny to watch partly because they're messed up.

You're meant to love Mindy, the way you love your friends because they're your friends, not because you want to be them. You're also not meant to emulate, say, Liz Lemon or Alicia Florick or even Olivia Pope. You might lwant to have Liz's dogged persistence or Alicia's strength or Olivia's tenacious loyalty, but viewers, Nussbaum points out, can get confused when those same characters exhibit character flaws. How could she do that?

This reminded me of a series of conversations I had while teaching a course in contemporary American literature, in which I realized that some readers don't like a book because they don't like the decisions the main character makes—even if those decisions are consistent with the character, which is to say, even if they're authentic to what we know of broken humans and what we know of those characters in particular.

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Before they became a topic that was so 2012, I got used to hearing people talk about antiheroes as some sign of the decline of civilization (here's an example). But I sat in the back of the classroom thinking on Monday, having read Emily Nussbaum's piece—which you should read before answering the questions I pose below—I got to thinking: where do we get the idea that protagonist ought to equal hero?

In other words, where do we get the idea that “empathizing” with a protagonist requires that they make the right decisions? Where do we even get the idea that our protagonists are there for us to emulate? What drives us toward this?

I couldn’t think of a lot of protagonists from classic literature whom I wanted anyone to emulate, except in the most vague way—because they learn lessons and grow up and so on.

I posed this question to my students, because I didn't (and don't) have an answer. We came up with a few answers: Ulysses (but not the gods); Jesus (but not a lot of the patriarchs, at least not halfway through their "stories"); Paul, maybe; sheriffs in old Westerns; superheroes, at least in the early days; Founding Fathers. (Jane Eyre, maybe, but . . . maybe not.) But I brought up the fact that Lizzy Bennet and Emma Woodhouse are not people we ought to emulate, nor are a lot of Biblical characters, nor Shakespeare protagonists, nor many, many, many protagonists from classic literature, especially in the nineteenth century.

We wondered together, then, where the expectation that our heroes make the right choice and do the right thing comes from . . . because it certainly doesn't seem to be from history. Antiheroes as well as morally complex protagonists, in other words, seem to show up all over the place.

I was reminded of a talk I once heard on heroes versus saints that left a mark on me, the basis of which my friend Jeffrey Overstreet summarized well:

The ethicist Samuel Wells writes that hero stories “are told to laud the virtues of the heroes — for if the hero failed, all would be lost. By contrast, a saint can fail in a way that the hero can’t, because the failure of the saint reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the saint is just a small character in a story that’s always fundamentally about God.”

My class and I were left wondering two things: are there uncomplicated, unironic heroes on TV today? And were there ever really in the past? And do we want uncomplicated heroes? Could they be dangerous in any ways? How much of this is distinctly American? Are there ways that heroism outweighs the danger of presenting unmitigatedly good guys (other than Christ himself)?

This isn't a pronouncement as much as an invitation to a conversation. So, let's open the floor: what do you think?

(Good reads on the matter of heroes versus saints here and here.)

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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