Antiheroes and Saints

Where do we get the inclination to emulate or praise our protagonists?
Antiheroes and Saints
Gwyneth Paltrow in 'Emma'

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 ...

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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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