The Appeal Of The Villain
Why we can’t help but be drawn to the guy in the black whatever
Whether it’s Mephistopheles tempting Doctor Faustus or Voldemort trying to rule the world, we all appreciate a good villain. Actors and actresses aspire to play villains as the high drama (or, alternatively, high camp) of a well-written baddie is often far more satisfying than being forced to ply one’s thespian trade in the depiction of a prim goodie.
There are of course some wonderful villains in history and in literature. Agrippina, Lucrecia Borgia, Lady Macbeth, and the White Witch all spring effortlessly to mind. Nevertheless, male villains still outnumber their female counterparts by a wide margin and so for the purposes of this essay we shall reinforce stale gender norms (and thereby doubtless inflict innumerable microaggressions on sensitive readers) by referring mostly to male exemplars of the dark tendency.
Part of the appeal of the wicked antagonist is surely, for those leading lives of quiet desperation amid the tedium of quotidian existence, simply the thrill of being able to see someone acting reprehensibly and, until the final denouement at least, getting away with it. Who has not fantasized about doing something naughty to their boss, or to their spouse, or to the annoying jerk at the other end of the bar? The bad guy doesn’t just impotently dream about it; he does it!
Then there are the women who are drawn like moths to a flame by the irresistible allure of the Bad Boy. Trapped in a perpetual emotional teenage-hood, these women can’t help but respond positively to displays of nonchalant self-harm. The origins of this attraction lie back in our evolutionary history, before the invention of agriculture and thus before it was possible to hand wealth down through the generations. Lacking the status that comes from age and lacking material wealth to signal automatic advantage for any offspring, all that a hormone-raddled teenage male had was display. Thus, such boys would throw rocks at predators, tie a vine around an ankle and leap from a tall tree, challenge a rival, or perform some other such overt act intended to make pubescent females pay attention. The idea was, basically, “Hey, look at me! If I can do something this stupid and still live, then my genes must be pretty good, right?”
My own suspicion, however, is that one of the great appealing features of the villain is that they actually seem to have a plan and know (more or less) what they’re doing. Given that in real life nearly everyone is clueless and incompetent, and the more senior someone becomes the more true this is, I think there’s an enormous relief in watching the machinations of a convincing antagonist. Finally, here’s someone who’s not as dim-witted and blunder-prone as pretty much everyone we know, everyone we see on television, and everyone who has power over our daily lives.
Good villains, if we can excuse the oxymoron, are purposeful and focused. They speak in complete sentences and are clearly using their brains as more than just ballast to stop their heads from bobbing about as they walk. Unlike politicians and ephemeral TV personalities, they don’t pander in order to gain votes or to be liked. They impose their will in a ruthless and single-minded pursuit of their goal.
We do not see an embarrassingly flabby Darth Vader blustering arrant nonsense to a packed stadium of drooling halfwits; he acts with economy of word and clarity of action. Voldemort does not make his Death-Eaters sit through a two-hour PowerPoint presentation that is utterly incomprehensible and filled with tedious management jargon. And, to the best of my knowledge, at no time in history has any would-be Supreme Ruler ever uttered anything along the lines of, “So, like, we’ll totally like own this thing, you know what I mean, like, it’s gonna be super awesome and rad!”
(For readers who are more au fait than I am with contemporary gibberish, I apologize if my example above is filled with words that have already faded from use and which have inevitably been superseded by utterances that are even less meaningful.)
Such is the unalloyed appeal of the villain that over the last several decades many of their traits have been absorbed into the protagonist. From the 1950s to the 1970s it was fashionable to talk of “the anti-hero” but the trope is now so automatic that today we expect it as a matter of course. Squint Eastward made an entire career out of portraying such villain-like heroes and no tedious police procedural is complete without a predictably “complex and tortured” lead character. James Bond famously began as a sociopathic alcoholic and the passing of the years since his creation have not induced him to undertake a course of therapy-led introspection nor even to consider a less deranged career.
When we step away from fiction, however, the picture grows darker.
Perhaps the greatest reason of all that we are drawn to the wicked antagonist is that they provide us with an ideal scapegoat. Here, we can tell ourselves, is someone who is truly evil. Someone not-like-us-at-all. We may go to work and put on a uniform and during the course of our working day brutalize someone with a dark skin or throw a terrified small child into a cage, but we’re not bad people. We may sabotage a colleague’s career or intentionally scrape up someone’s car as we pull out of a parking space, but we’re not bad, really. We may beat our spouse and assault our children but, you know, that’s just necessary discipline and not at all like the evil deeds we see on the screen.
In other words, historical and theatrical villains give us a free pass.
We can ignore the everyday malign things we do to others because we’re not dressed in some elaborate costume like real bad guys so often are. We don’t have a huge armored hideout filled with dark-suited henchmen. We’re just ordinary. So we can’t be bad, can we? I mean, not just because we vote for people who are blatantly undermining every norm of decency and humanity, right? It’s not our fault if illegal rapist murderer five-year-olds are torn from the arms of their parents and incarcerated. That’s just protecting our way of life, which is good. (And besides, they’re better off in cages anyway.)
And we can’t be bad if we’re just doing our jobs, right? Doing what we’re told, or what we’re pretty sure our superiors want us to do even though they haven’t actually come right out and said it because of all this political correctness nonsense. And it’s definitely not bad to abuse and harm those other people over there because they aren’t us.
The villain allows us to avoid looking at our own actions by giving us the distraction of theirs. Because the bad guy can wave his hand and destroy the lives of far more people than we can, we’re automatically excused thanks to the fact our evil seems to be on a smaller scale.
I rather suspect that one sign of a healthy society would be a much smaller percentage of fictional entertainment devoted to bad guys and anti-heroes. These characters exist in part to salve our consciences.
If we were not engaged in harming others, we would have less need to salve.
For now, though, the villain and the anti-hero continue to dominate our imaginary world because our own daily actions in the real world ensure that so many of us still have plenty of scapegoating we need to keep on doing in order to feel more-or-less OK about ourselves.
While it’s a pleasing conceit to imagine, pace Prospero, that we are the stuff that dreams are made on, we are in truth too often the stuff of other people’s nightmares.