Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The New Suburban Anti-Hero

Suburbia has a new breed of hero to rally behind. However, he (or she) has a different prefix to that moniker: The ANTI-hero.

I rented several TV series to study for an upcoming book and I was really struck by the themes and characters that have gained popularity in recent years. While we have come a long way since Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch, these new characters have really inverted the American Dream and get away with murder--literally. Justification seems to be the name of the game for these latest television tropes. Whatever the hero's flaw or vice might be, the audience still applauds his or her illegal behaviors, clinging to whatever flimsy justification is presented. Some people may prefer to view this type of character as a flawed hero or perhaps a byronic hero. Personally I still opt for the antihero/antiheroine label because these characters continue in their immoral or illegal behavior intentionally and indefinitely. Despite their moral complexities, we are drawn in by them and intrigued by the way they (often secretly) reject traditional values even though they exist within very traditional environments. Maybe we live vicariously through our suburban antiheroes, questioning authority and pushing the envelope of the law, comfortably from our living room armchair. 

Antihero worship is by no means new. Gangster movies have long since romanticized the dark and tragic character, and post-war film noir took the antihero to lofty new levels. From the ashes of the second world war also rose the femme fatale, the ultimate antiheroine of the times. An imperfect protagonist has more depth, gains more respect and sympathy, causing viewers to personally relate and connect to the character's plight. Considering the the current state of society--our futile "War on Terror," our economic situation ("war on terror" of a different nature), the ever-growing LGBT movement, and a neo-sexual revolution--perhaps another cycle similar to post-WW2 and post-nuclear age has been triggered. Could it be that mass disillusionment has spurred our collective consciousness (television and film) to spit out a darker modern vision of the suburban family unit? Father and mother are morally-confused and even dangerous rolemodels. Sensitive geek-boys have become the modern male romantic lead, with manic pixie dream girls to guide them to their destiny. The "everyman" character has become a vigilante antihero. And what about the children? Don't ask. They're too busy dealing with their dysfunctional parents and just trying to stay afloat in a puddle of their own impotent slacker spooge. Just view any Mumblecore film.

While antiheroes come in all different flavors, the following examples I am referencing spring from  typical suburban roots:

Weeds: Season One [Blu-ray]
A widowed mother of two boys resorts to selling marijuana to support her middle-upper class lifestyle.

Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season [Blu-ray]

A suburban father and high school chemistry teacher resorts to cooking and selling methamphetamine to financially support his family when discovers he has inoperable lung cancer.

Nurse Jackie
Nurse Jackie: Season One
An emergency room nurse with a penchant for popping pills and adulterous sex with the hospital's pharmacist balances the demands of fast-paced work and family life.

Dexter: The First Season

The adventures of a forensic blood splatter analysis for Miami Metro Police who happens to also be a serial killer and possible psychopath.

These are just a small sampling of many similar TV series that glorify this type of antihero or portray suburban ennui as the breeding ground for this character. Many more could be studied, such as House, for instance, or films such as Lymelife.

What strikes me about all of these series is how much fans truly love these characters. They are more than willing to overlook their little foibles like say...serial murder and drug dealing. Each character has a special reason for their initial "forced entrance" into activities that are illegal and normally abhorrent to the average person. But are these really valid reasons to break the law?

Posed as Eve with the Serpent, Mary-Louise Parker 

Consider the series Weeds. The protagonist, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) is a widow left with two kids. She is tight on money, but living in an affluent area, so drug dealing isn't a do-or-die situation. However, if she wants to continue living in the lifestyle to which the family is accustomed, selling marijuana becomes a valid choice. The downside is of course that it is illegal (at least in this circumstance) and a number of difficulties crop up as her business expands--which keeps things entertaining for the viewers throughout the seasons. While Nancy breaks rules, she retains many traditional gender traits to comfort more conservative viewers (and perhaps advertisers). Her maternal instincts are displayed when she takes action to prevent young school children from using her product.

At the time of it's airing, the idea of a upper-middle class white woman conducting herself in such a manner could be defined as racy and rebellious. Although the fact that cannabis is so widely accepted and has medical use, makes it score pretty low on the scale of sin.  If anything, the show probably contributes to validating the use of cannabis as a normal middle class activity. "Weeds Nights" became a popular activity for twenty-something fans of the show who got together in small groups to watch the show, and of course, get high. Like a continuation of American Beauty, the series expresses the obvious--suburbia just ain't what it used to be.

Moving on to a suburban situation with far higher stakes is the next drug-related series, Breaking Bad. The protagonist, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) uses his considerable chemistry skills to produce ultra-high quality crystal-methamphetamine to sell on the streets. The justification: Walter has terminal lung cancer and he wants to make sure he doesn't leave his family in debt and that they are provided for in the future.

Smoking ice isn't near as benign as smoking cannabis, however, Walter is only interested in the business side of the activity--manufacturing. His character begins the series as a meek, emasculated family man who is rarely permitted to make a decision for himself. Everything about Walter points out that he is ineffectual. His own family belittles him constantly. The state of his finances is pathetic and his wife must make endless excuses to collection agents. His son is crippled with cerebral palsy, which could be viewed as a subtle reflection on Walter's lack of masculinity even in reproduction.

During Walt's 50th birthday party his brother-in-law, Hank the DEA Agent, becomes the center of attention by showing off a new gun he just acquired (clearly phallic symbolism), which impresses Walter's son greatly. Hank then forces the reluctant Walter into holding the gun also, which he does very gingerly, causing Hank to tease him in front of the party guests. Walter's denial of the gun reflects his inner denial of the phallus at the time. He does not usually take the male role in the family. When he finally handles the gun, he clearly isn't comfortable. Hank gives him a toast and makes reference to the fact that his "brains are the size of Wisconsin" but clearly that is not the region where size matters according to Hank and the gang of male guests.

Walt's final humiliation in this pilot episode occurs later that night in bed. His wife, Skyler,  half-heartedly reaches under the covers to give Walt a birthday handjob, all the while never tearing her eyes from her laptop where she is conducting a ebay auction. She is clearly more sexually excited by the possibility of earning a few bucks for a cheap vase in an ebay auction than she is about pleasing her husband. Walter, understandably, can't maintain an erection and she berates him, looking under the covers and complaining, "what's going on down there??"

Inspired by the TV coverage he watched earlier of Hank's meth lab bust with the DEA, in which the camera panned over stacks and stacks of confiscated money, Walter's metamorphosis begins. One thing leads to another and the lowly chemistry teacher starts to gain his manhood back after cooking up a premium batch of glass-grade meth and overcoming a harrowing experience with rival drug distributor. The first episode ends with the formerly meek Walter getting into bed with his wife and grabbing her by the hips from behind to surprising her (and himself) with his newfound turgidity. The couple then spends the next seasons embroiled in domestic disputes, female vs. male for the position of power in the household. In today's suburbia, the men don't necessarily wear the pants in the family anymore, and must go to extremes to try win back the throne in the household. Walter stumbles about in his new role as a burgeoning alpha male, which appears to be measured in accordance with how many pounds of methamphetamine and stacks of cash he produces.

Moving back into the realm of female troubles, another popular TV series portrays a character in a dangerous dance with drugs. As the name implies, Nurse Jackie takes place most often in a New York City hospital, so it would appear to be more urban than suburban. However, the main character occupies the middle class, has a spouse and child, and lives in a typical suburban home.

Soccer Moms of America are misbehaving, as evidenced in Weeds and probably popularized by the  Desperate Housewives of Wisteria Lane. But these days it takes more than just a little yellow pill to deal with suburban discontent. Nurse Jackie's version of "mother's little helper" ranges from Adderall, Percocet, and Xanax to the white-collar version of heroin, Oxycontin. A bad back happens to be the initial justificiation for opiate usage in her case.

This antiheroine is street smart and willing to set aside medical ethics and use her own judgment when she deems necessary. Jackie Peyton (played by Edie Falco) has adulterous sex with the hospital pharmacist who supplies her habit, and still manages play the part of a wife, mother and nurse. Well, barely. Nurse Jackie is appealing but her physical qualities are not the stereotypical. She is natural, slightly aged, somewhat androgynous with short hair and minimal makeup. Her personality does not stay confined to gender norms either, and Jackie seems torn between the yin and yang of her own psyche. She appears to indulge herself in a traditionally masculine manner--freely satisfying her sexual needs as well as her pharmaceutical desires in lieu of exercising the restraint and sacrifice that is expected of her gender, and especially of a mother.  But Jackie's career is the center of her life and when she is at home she puts on a different mask, struggling to fill the maternal role expected of her. More often than not, her husband Kevin plays mother and wife, doing the cooking and nurturing.

Women are usually "punished" on TV for the sin of shirking their gender role for any extended amount of time and Jackie doesn't seem to be an exception. Besides all of the various issues and consequences that come with a prescription drug habit, the sins of the mother tend to be visited upon the children, usually the daughter. In Jackie's case, her daughter Grace requires psychological help for her increasing anxiety which first manifested as a phobia of fire and then graduated to spending long periods in the bathroom and secretly pulling out her own hair.

In the series Mad Men, which brings us back to the suburbs of the early 1960s in between office scenes, we also see the sins of the mother (and father) manifest in the daughter. Sally Draper, the daughter of philandering Don Draper, ends up hacking off her own hair with scissors to gain her father's attention. The only thing she gains is a rough slap in the face from her mother Betty, who is terrified of her daughter becoming anything less than prime marriage material. Sally is caught later, masturbating at a sleepover which leads to her being taken away for psychotherapy.

Finally, one series has an antihero who has charmed viewers into doing the unthinkable--cheering on a serial killer. The series Dexter is now going into its sixth season as strong as ever. Based off the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, the main character, Dexter, is leading a double life. In the narrative voice-over Dexter (played by Michael C. Hall) describes himself as hardly human. He has simply learned to imitate normal human behaviors even though he is practically devoid of emotion. The one emotion he does have is an unquenchable passion for killing. Most episodes don't end until Dexter plunges a knife in the heart of a nude victim, dismembers the body and goes on a boat ride to enjoy the afterglow and dispose of bags of body parts on the ocean floor.

The justification for Dexter's lack of normal emotions and need to kill in this case is revealed by the end of the first season. As a small child Dexter was witness to his mother's hideous murder and left inside a cargo container for two days in a pool of her blood and body parts until the police discovered him. Harry, one of the cops who discovered Dexter ends up adopting him and never tells him about his true origins. However, Harry notices that Dexter is not like other children and comes to the conclusion that Dexter must be a sociopath because of what happened to him. Therefore Harry begins training Dexter in techiniques to channel his homicidal urges and keep from getting caught. Harry's "code" also teaches Dexter to only kill those who kill others, especially those who slip away from the law on technicalities. It is handy that Dexter grows up to become a forensic blood splatter analysist working with law enforcement at Miami Metro.
Michael C. Hall as Dexter

The Code puts Dexter in the role of a vigilante of sorts, although he is not killing for any noble cause. He hunts, kills and dismembers purely for pleasure, like a sexual release. It is interesting to note that Dexter is never actually shown dismembering the bodies, and he makes the kill quickly rather than torturing his victims. Watching him indulge in such morbid activities would undoubtedly ruin the tenuous bond the viewer keeps with Dexter. It is already stretched pretty far when you consider his actions in the first season video below. Dexter admires the dismembered, bloodless limbs of a female victim and gleefully refers to the Miami homicide scene as a type of Disneyland....

Vigilante or not, why do we support a character who is a serial killer? Having Dexter be likable is imperative. And it doesn't hurt that his looks are also pleasant to most viewers. Would we be as forgiving to a creepy looking, antisocial serial killer? No way. Why does Dexter appeal to people though? Perhaps it is in part due to the increasing humanity of his character, which also serves as justification for the viewer who may feel guilty for enjoying Dexter's killing sprees. If Dexter is slowly becoming more "human," then one can feel they are watching in order to see his transformation back into a moral person. He may be transforming from an antihero to a tragic or flawed hero.

Maybe Dexter is just severely traumatized to the point that he has repressed his emotions. Can he become a full human being again, with a full range of emotions? That is the big question. Since the pilot episode, Dexter has developed (not without growing pains) from lone wolf to having a girlfriend, getting married, living with his wife and her two children in a suburban household and even becoming a father of a new baby. Has Dexter finally gotten his "dark passenger" under control? Or will everything blow up in his face?

One can argue that in all of these series, the dangerous consequences of drug dealing, drug abuse, and serial killing are shown, therefore the shows are not condoning the behaviors per se. The characters each have their loved ones, relationships, reputation, careers and lives at put at great risk, even suffering some permanent losses. However I do not believe that is truly a deterrent as presented. It creates excitement and tension, but that can lead to even more empathy with the characters, as we sit on pins and needles now hoping that they don't get caught or killed for their illegal behaviors. In addition, it is easy to see where the character has gone wrong and tell yourself, "oh, well that was a stupid move. If he only exercised better judgment that wouldn't have happened." The illegal behavior actually becomes almost enticing, when the rewards are displayed. Not to mention the fact that some shows are very educational in how to carry out the dirty deeds. The crew of Breaking Bad were taught how to cook meth by  DEA agent who gave them a hands on demo himself. And Dexter gives a great lesson on how to prepare a "kill room" to avoid leaving biological evidence at the scene of a crime.

Can we all control our "dark passengers" and join the rest of humanity? The heroes of our suburban dream worlds have become those who bend, break and decimate the rules. Even in the "real world" we have taken to worshiping a different set of icons, so-called celebrities that are famous for doing absolutely nothing (or at least nothing but behaving badly).

When it comes to heroes, have our standards gone way down? Or has our propensity for civil rebellion gone way up? Dexter may be the one who gives the clearest clue as to why we are allowing these antiheroes into our hearts. They must have a "code" like Dexter. Some of them have a code which is unspoken, but as long as they are following a system we can live with, then they haven't descended into complete chaos--which is far more threatening. They have bucked one system, but there is an alternate system they are plugging into. Order is always more comforting than chaos and complete random choice. It is when the characters start straying from the personal codes they have set up that we begin to distrust and dislike them. A code points to order, which points to possibility of achieving a goal. Most of these suburban antiheroes seem to be searching for redemption (in all the wrong places).  Who knows? Maybe over time perhaps we may see these characters flipflop from naive antiheroes to tragic or flawed heroes that have learned from their mistakes.

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