Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Holding Two Minds: Villain Apologism

I try to be open to all widely-varying interpretations of fictional characters, to remember that other people don't perceive characters the same ways I do. But there's just certain things I can't  agree with, and one of them is villain apologism.

You know it: the insistence that a villain is "not that bad", that because their actions are the result of a bad life or a bad situation they can't be blamed for the harm they cause. Nerd wars are fought over whether this is "true", and my stance is always firm.

Once a character voluntarily chooses to harm others, and they are aware they are causing harm, the reasons you commit these actions don't matter: you're the villain, the bad guy, not a nice person. There are plenty of ins and outs in this viewpoint, but I'm trying to keep it simple for the sake of making a point.

I support and prefer making stories emotionally and morally complex, creating changing, multifaceted characters, and authors being able to look at a story from multiple viewpoints. However, a story with these things doesn't mean the villains aren't easy to identify. There are exceptions, stories with truly blurred moral lines, but having a villain with understandable motivations and emotions doesn't on its own erase the possibility of moral judgement.

The truth is, most people aren't evil for the sake of evil. There are always reasons underlying their actions. But it's not right to throw away morality and punishment because the villain had "reasons", because otherwise, anyone can do anything.

So then why are there villain apologists? Many people like to blame sexual attraction for "blinding" fans to the faults of their favourite villains, but it's too simple to only think that's the only reason. And even when someone is attracted to a fictional character, that doesn't explain why the morality of that character should matter to them, when the character doesn't exist and can't hurt them.

There are lots of reasons why this morality would matter, though. The first one is that attraction to a character can be more than sexual. Whatever the intentions of the writers, it's inevitable that a character will "click" with a viewer in a way the writers did not intend. The viewer will find some strange sympathy or empathy with the character, sometimes making a connection between their experiences and the character's.

This connection might cut very deep, and change the viewer's perception, so that because they don't believe themselves to be bad, they can't see the character they intensely identify with as bad, either.  To judge this character as evil will therefore seem like a personal insult.

This could also take a different form. A viewer, even if their connection to a villain isn't so deep, could still feel squeamish about the thought of liking an evil character, and believe that to like an evil character reflects badly on their personal morality. So they deny this evil in order to make themselves feel they're still on the side of right.

Thirdly, it can simply be too difficult to balance a dislike of the character's deeds with a liking for the character themselves—and trying to could water down or even corrupt the affection one has for the character. Never being able to reconcile these two viewpoints might therefore make the hobby too much of a strain. To pretend that this character is not evil would therefore simplify things, and make it possible to love the character unconditionally.

And yeah, sometimes it has something to do with lust. I can't deny it entirely. After all, beauty is supposed to get you places, and onto a pedestal in a nerd's psyche could be one of those. Just that it might be a little bit different from that, too.

Attractive villains may get apologists more often, but unattractive ones can still "click" with a viewer in the way I mentioned above, still be liked without the viewer actually being in love with them.

I've seen it implied that villain apologism is a commonly female phenomenon. Female fans are suggested to be more likely to be into a fantasy rather than the "real" character. They produce insufferable sexual fixations, corrupting fandom with their squee-cooties.

If there's any truth to the idea that female villain apologists are more common,  it's not because women are hardwired for blind masochism or too stupid to see what a character is "really" like, but because women have greater concerns about social reputation.

Fandom therefore reflects this…women don't want to be seen as "bad", so they try to excuse their own interests lest others judge them. Furthermore, don't deny there's a double standard—that fangirl lusts are perverse and ridiculous, while fanboy lusts are normal and sensible, even though there's nothing to suggest that.

If all of this seems stupid, it's because it sort of is. It's all just fiction, after all—shouldn't we be able to realize that liking a character doesn't mean we approve of what they do or the morals they represent? Yeah. But people are weird, and fiction is meant to evoke emotions, to make us dive into imaginary worlds and react to them as we would to experiences in the real world.

So it's not surprising that things can get intense, and that fans might want to save face in one way or another, be worried that their choices say bad things about them. But it's possible to like a character while not approving of them in all aspects. Heck, it can be fun sometimes, to insult a character you love when they do ugly things. You still love them, and I don't think a fictional being cares if there are caveats to that love.

Oh, and all this applies to anti-heroes, too, for whatever way you define "anti-hero".

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