Blurred Lines: Our Moral Compass and the Anti-hero

This was the latest and last article I had written for my college magazine in a series called ‘Blurred Lines.’ In this article I explored an an audiences’ perception of the good, the bad and the ugly realities of escapism.

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Whilst reading the third and final book from ‘The Halo Trilogy,’ Heaven by Alexandra Adornetto, it introduces these being called Shadow Hunters, partly fallen angel, partly human (that I can recall). They were presented as the antagonists, beings that were set out to destroy ‘star crossed lovers’ and their relationship. In this, I was positioned on the side of the couple and their romantic journey and therefore was told by the narration that Shadow Hunters are bad, and my effort as a reader went into hating them as the journey progressed. However, after finishing the trilogy, I started reading City of Bones by Cassandra Clare before its film adaptation was released.

City_of_BonesIn this book, I had been innocently following these characters as protagonists, trying to solve the enigmas of ‘who’s Jace? What does he do?’ etc. etc. But through the story I realised that the protagonists or more specifically, Jace and his group, were Shadow Hunters. As a reader, I was positioned on the side of Shadow Hunters who were given a slightly different definition to the one I have learnt about previously and honestly, I stopped reading. I was slightly thrown by the fact what I regarded as Harry-Potter-death-eater-like evil beings in Heaven, were what I was now siding with in City of Bones. This was then I realised, it’s fiction. I got so caught up in plots of these stories to satisfy my need for escapism, I believed for a small portion for my life a fictional thing, created purely by words and a reader’s imagination, was evil and would always be evil. Clearly, that isn’t the case. A different author with a completely different story subverted by previous perceptions, and I accepted it based on the fact I enjoyed this book too much to let my fictionalised knowledge ruin it.

My ‘confirmation to the rules of conduct,’ (Dictionary.com) my moral compass or ‘anything which serves to guide a person’s decisions based on morals or virtues,’ (Dictionary.com) had been in a somewhat insignificant and yet, personal way had been tested. I constructed in my head my own sense of betrayal from two narratives when really, I just read two books that called their own thing ‘Shadow Hunters.’ I needed to detach myself from Heaven the same way I had to detach myself from 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, in order to actually enjoy Maleficent. Even then, I was frustrated by the portrayal of the fairies and other things I just couldn’t let go of from my experience of a made-up world. But essentially, I was punishing myself from not separating the same character into two films for different generations.

This is one of many examples of how the perceptions of a ‘goodie’ and a ‘baddie’ can rationalise our moral compass, our sense of right and wrong, ‘the good and the bad.’ This means ‘the ugly’ must be when our moral compass is subverted into unknown territory that as rational people, we can’t figure out the “why?” of the situation presented to us by the creator. The most recent and personal example for me is: Pain & Gain.

‘The woman tucked her small baby into the soft yellow blanket. Her arms gently cradled the new-born and lifted the hood of the blanket away from its face… She cushioned the child into the cot and let her stir naturally. The woman turned to the window to shut the red curtains… A man sauntered in waiting to see his wife with a cup of tea in his hand for her, the cup clattered on the wooden floor bounced onto the carpet… nearby was a red pool, tracking back to a small hole in the woman’s head where she lay stiff. Her eyes unaware and bleak. The last thing those eyes saw was of their child, resting in peace…. But what can I say, it wasn’t easy to get a silencer for the rifle. And that window wasn’t the widest of ones either. I packed away the weapon into the carrier as I heard large footsteps on the roof climbing to my direction. It was time to disappear again.’

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This is a small extract from a personal project I have been writing after I was inspired by my media studies coursework and the research paper I did: ‘How far can it be argued that Hollywood biopic genre films, such as Pain & Gain (2013) and Coach Carter (2005), manipulate narrative conventions to appeal to a mass audience?’ Prior to the essay, I watched Pain & Gain and I was intrigued by it. IMDb outlines the plot as ‘A trio of bodybuilders in Florida get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scheme that goes terribly wrong.’ This anti-hero biopic had humour in it and what made the story all the more disturbing was that the film was based on fact and Michael Bay (director) exaggerated all the dark humour in it to appeal to a massaudience, an audience who like comedy, i.e, me. I had been targeted among the masses to watch this film and I laughed, I thought the violence was too good to be true, but that was the point. Two examples that can summarise the tone of the film is on YouTube called ‘Honest mistake’ and ‘Wood bat’ provided by MOVIEScomingsoon and Paramount Pictures (respectively).

paingainbigstill In this essay, I write that ‘Hollywood’s conventional narratives make audiences ‘feel inclined to warm’[1] towards protagonists as ‘the concerns are so important’[1] for the characters; there is also a strengthened sense of personal identity.’ Essentially, sometimes we can’t help but side with the people we have gotten to know, we were purposely positioned that way. In Pain & Gain, the first person we see and get to know is Mark Wahlberg’s character, Daniel Lugo, who in real life and at the end of the film was sentenced to death. This was shocking for myself and for a focus group I did for my essay, because we had gotten to know a bit more about these ‘protagonists’ and so we felt a strong inclination for them to get away with their crimes, as funny, violent and horrific as they were. This means that our expectations for a satisfying ending in terms of them still being alive, is challenged with their demise. But as an audience, we are brought back into reality, the side of law and order, the side as people we have grown up with: criminals get punished for their crimes (putting aside whatever opinion you have about capital punishment). Killing people is wrong, torturing people is wrong, grilling severed hands from people you smashed on the head with a dumbbell…is disturbing and wrong.

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The creation of an anti-hero is most popularly known in the form of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, a chemistry teacher and meth dealer, dying of cancer. Walter is ‘a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure,’ (Dictionary.com) someone who lacked the behaviour, actions and attributes we often see in Superheroes such as The Man of Steel (but even with for example, The Avengers, no super hero is perfect and we like that human attribute in the superhuman). However, audiences are positioned with what in the law and order’s eyes would be an antagonist, with an imperfect protagonist. In the first season, we see an innocent man, trying to pay for his son’s treatment and his only option left is creating the bluest form of meth (which, spoiler alert, isn’t truly possible… apparently…).

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It isn’t until season 5 where dedicated audiences see the transformation in Walter, physically, emotionally and mentally. Best example being his lack of sympathy and naivety (which we previously saw in season 1) when he basically blows up half of villain, Gus Fring’s face, killing him becoming the villain himself. No escape of rationality this time.

Audiences go through their own turmoil with their morality, Walter has transformed into an anti-hero before our every eyes, and we can’t help but still sympathise and try to rationalise his actions as avenging Gus’ awful nature. This is because of the journey we have been through with him. We want him to live, to succeed, but reality gets in the way. People change and the audience know inevitably that Walter will die. And when he did so, despite the person he has become, it is still emotional because of the person we saw him as, a Chemistry teacher, a rational and decent person who didn’t deserve to have his life end. But let me remind you, this is fiction. This was created to put you in turmoil whilst at the same time be entertained and have a fresh, innovative sense of escapism. That is why Breaking Bad was given the Guinness world record of ‘Highest-Rated TV Series’ for a Metacritic score of 99/100. Audiences had their moral compass put to the test and in the result, loved it.

So if this was to have a conclusion, it would be that we choose whether to accept the side we are positioned with, hero or anti-hero. We can choose to oppose it (i.e. I could have stopped reading City of Bones altogether and refuse the idea of good-intentioned ‘Shadow Hunters’) or we can negotiate our morality. What these characters are doing is morally wrong and punishable but for the purpose of entertaining ourselves, we still want to watch it and get to know them and personally identify with them.

Our morality can be played with like a devil’s advocate by the creators of a book, or a film or a TV series. But in the end of it, our moral compass is ours also to control, and it can be refreshing to have it challenged from time-to-time. To challenge us to re-evaluate our perceptions, ideals and belief systems. To check the validity of our own moral compass…. The eternal debate of bad versus mad. Ironically, anti-heroes in our life: not such a bad thing.

Notes: [1] Realism and ‘reality’ in Film and Media (2002 edition from university of Copenhagen)