Happily Ever After?

The author of “Identifying with the Antagonist of the Story”, Emma Hetrick, argues that audiences identify too much with protagonists and do not focus enough on their counterparts, and postulates that pop culture is in need of more antagonist-centered stories. I would like to suggest that Hetrick, with her identification with Judas, is an example of the fact that current audiences do not limit their empathy to protagonists. Rather, I believe that consumers of pop culture, just like Hetrick, are able to separate the concepts of empathy and identification from that of support.

Hetrick is able to empathize with Judas and other betrayers of Jesus without completely supporting or agreeing with Judas’s actions. Likewise, consumers of film and literature are able to understand, or empathize with, the motivations behind antagonists’ actions without agreeing with the actions themselves. For an example, one may look to Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History. Spoilers withholding, a character in the work who emerges as a potential antagonist resorts to morally questionable acts – ranging from lies to, eventually, murder – in order to evade arrest. Readers are able to understand why this character would feel driven to some of these morally questionable acts – although they may, understandably, feel less sympathy in response to murder – without endorsing or agreeing with these acts. Audiences are more cognizant than some may realize of this difference between what they know about, and how they feel towards, such morally gray areas. Contributors to media need to trust that the majority of their audiences can understand the distinction.

I would also like to suggest that pop culture does not necessarily have a dearth of antagonist-focused material. In recent years, many books and movies have sought to depict the so-called “other side of the story,” asking audiences to grant antagonists the benefit of the doubt with films such as the 2014 Maleficent, a retelling of the classic Sleeping Beauty re-centered from the point of view of Maleficent herself, the traditional antagonist. Further, other works such as the Sondheim musical Into the Woods have challenged audiences to take a second look at beloved characters, taking previously two-dimensional protagonists such as Prince Charming and Little Red Riding Hood and complicating their portrayals. Finally, novels such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita further complicate the question of morality in protagonists and in art, with its controversial use of a pedophilic, antagonist-like narrator.

One may question, regarding the films mentioned above, why a franchise such as Disney would want to counter their so-beloved happily-ever-after, hero versus villain dichotomy. One possibility is a wish to complicate the narrative, to create media that mirrors real-life events, which are not so black and white. Children, as traditional fairytale plotlines show, are satisfied with endings that favor the hero-protagonist, endings that neatly tie up all loose ends. As Hetrick points out, audiences want the so-called good guy to succeed. That doesn’t mean, however, that the narrative cannot be complicated along the way by creating humanized antagonists. Audiences want to feel moved, and creating three-dimensional antagonists is one compelling means towards that end. People have become less satisfied with the fairytale, happily-ever-after ending: when creators make art imitate life, consumers find that art all the more compelling. Herein lies the appeal of movies such as Maleficent – which purports to give the “other side of the story” – and Into the Woods, which takes traditional, more two-dimensional characters and molds them into more believable figures. One sees this even with the Joker, the iconic villain from the Batman franchise. Very few fans would view the Joker as morally upright; however, he remains a beloved character, in part due to hints from the franchise’s writers as to his origins – possibilities range from an emergence from an abusive and alcoholic household, to a desperate, misguided attempt to show support for an injured wife. No matter the “true” backstory, these plotlines represent efforts to paint more believable, three-dimensional villains. This believability makes it all the easier for audiences to engage with the media and empathize with the characters in question – even in cases of antagonists.

Consumers of pop culture are able to separate the concept of empathy from that of support. Due to their ability to grasp this distinction, as well as the presence of a fair few antagonist-centered films, books, and other such works, perhaps there isn’t an urgent need for pop-culture narratives to re-center themselves: audiences are already able to do the work themselves. Further, the presence, and content, of these antagonist-centered films represent a desire in consumers of media for more realistic, three-dimensional plots and characters.

Morgan Wu is a rising senior in the College studying English Literature and Psychology. In her spare time, she can be found sleeping, reading, and coming to terms with the fact that she will be graduating in a year.