Shading in the gray of antiheroes

Now that we’ve laid the antihero era to rest (several times, actually) maybe it’s time we figured out what an antihero actually is.

When “Go Set a Watchmen” hit bookshelves last month, the media was in a total tizzy to discuss the “new” revelation that Atticus Finch was a racist. At the time I wasn’t floored by the reveal, and didn’t follow along with a lot of the hype that was happening as the book was released. But it did lead to me overhearing this gem from the local news channel my roommate watches: “In the end it seems the hero and the antihero are one and the same.”

What a dumb sentence. I have complaints about broadcast journalism, but for weeks I couldn’t believe this made the cut in somebody’s script. Don’t they know an antihero is the unpopular hero of a story, not just a villain? But when talking about it with some more people, I realized maybe I don’t know what an antihero is.

To me, an antihero has always been the hero of the story whose actions you would condemn if they weren’t so damn compelling to watch. Or maybe you do condemn them, but still tune in every week. Either way, they were the protagonist in a story, even if you wouldn’t root for them in real life.

My close friend had similar thoughts. “I figure that if most people’s loose definition of a hero is a protagonist who you wish you could be (Harry Potter, Superman, etc.), then an antihero is a protagonist who you’re not supposed to idolize (Don Draper; Tony Soprano; Dexter).

Cue Metric's "Gold Guns Girls" here...
Cue Metric’s “Gold Guns Girls” here…

What keeps me wondering, however, is how much the character motivation matters. Don Draper’s anti-hero qualities stemmed from a lot of shame and confusion, constantly simmering underneath his marble exterior. But Walter White’s, whose creator has given him out after out from his life of crime, seems to stem from an insatiable fire of anger and brutality burning within, stoked for the first time by breaking bad.

All too often, the audience isn’t clued in entirely on the writer’s vision of the anti- in antihero. It’s been clear in the Skyler/Walt fandom debacle that all too often characters who we aren’t identifying with still illicit some cheering from the peanut gallery for their bad actions. “The Americans,” though not often focusing on whether its soviet spy duo is in the right or wrong of the greater Cold War context, walks a pretty tricky line: If its leads were to succeed, the country we live in wouldn’t exist. So why do I feel so compelled to root for them?

Whatever your definition, it seems to deal a lot with how we perceive gender roles, as Think Progress writes:

But, as I wrote when HBO’s Girls debuted in 2012, female anti-heroes, both on HBO and Showtime, tend to present a slightly different test for us. Rather than examining how far our admiration for masculinity stretches when its applications turn toxic, female anti-hero dramas tend to examine at what point we can overcome our distaste for a character’s weaknesses–be they addiction in Nurse Jackie, a solopsistic turn to drug dealing in Weeds, mental illness in Homeland, or simple early twenty-something indecision and selfishness in Girls–to recognize their overall worth.

And a quick troll through the antihero hall of fame from the past few years and you’ll find many of them are white men. How much that has to do with network casting and how much that has to do with where the “hero” ends for an antihero, I probably couldn’t speak to without more than an afternoon of research.

Which may be the biggest issue for me: When do I root for the antihero? How can I define something that, like porn, I just have to know when I see. Walter White, Greg House, and Tony Soprano carry the label pretty easily, but Jack Sparrow? Snape? Howl? Oh-Dae Su? It’s not as simple to me as asking whether a hero was right because that’s so subjective. I frequently get to the end of movies/shows/books/you name it and say “this character was right, but…” Flawless characters aren’t that interesting. But flawed characters aren’t not heroes.

As we push on past the “age of the antihero,” and indeed through the “golden era of television” and onwards into some ever-expanding platinum epoch, have we left the antihero behind? Are we expanding the definition? So long as we elevate the discourse several notches above local news, there’s worse problems to have on our hands.