NOTE: Contains one instance of swearing. Spoilers for some of the TV series / films used for reference.
I would love to say, “I don’t get it. It makes no sense to me.”
It would be nice to have the moral high ground here.
Sadly, I, too, have been guilty of ‘romanticising’ a toxic character (only the one, though – to my mild relief): Guy of Gisbourne from the 2006 BBC Robin Hood series.
I hate that I still have mixed feelings (sort of) about this character. More on that later.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately: why are blatantly toxic and/or abusive male characters on screen “forgiven” for their behaviour and even revered/adored/romanticised/”stanned” by female (or other) viewers?
This was prompted by my decision to revisit ‘The Vampire Diaries’, starting with series 1 and quitting just after episode 1 of series 4. Back when the show was first airing on television, I was decidedly pro-Stelena.
Today, I am still a Stelena fan, but would also have settled fairly happily for an ending with Elena choosing neither of the Salvatores and either being on her own or with someone else (preferably both as humans).
In other words, pretty much ANYTHING but the God awful Delena endgame that the show’s writers opted for. (Mini- rant here but seriously? SERIOUSLY people? Damon — let this sink in — DAMON SALVATORE is the “better man”?!? Are you fucking kidding me?)
Anyway, my point is that obviously the writers found the idea of the Damon-Elena pairing highly “romantic” as did many viewers and fans of the show. This pairing was immensely popular, despite Damon being troublingly toxic on screen. Let’s review his charge sheet:
1) Has stalked and tormented his brother for over a 100 years because of a grudge
2) Emotionally and sexually abuses (rapes) Elena’s friend Caroline (I’m not going to argue this point – no matter what anyone thinks, “compulsion” is akin to the absence of consent and thus anything that happens under compulsion is a violation. More for a more detailed breakdown, I refer you to this excellent post, and to this one.)
3) Repeatedly endangers and even threatens to kill Elena’s friends Bonnie and Matt
4) Intends to kill, and attempts to kill, her brother when she first refuses his sexual advances
5) His inability to understand choice and consent – he repeatedly mocks his brother for caring about what Elena wants, rather than just doing what he deems needs to be done
6) His obsessive and disturbingly possessive attitude towards Elena (forcing her to drink vampire blood so that she could be resurrected as a vampire should anything happen to her — despite her ABSOLUTELY NOT WANTING THIS.)
7) He uses and abuses people to cope with his “feelings” (e.g., Andie). Every time he faces any difficult emotion, he either lashes out in violence towards Elena and her loved ones or towards other innocent people (because, ‘oh poor Damon, life’s not fair’).
8) He never takes responsibility. He always blames others for “making” him behave in certain ways.
(For a more detailed summary, see this)
And despite all this, somehow this pairing is supposed to be “epic love”. Oh and we’re supposed to excuse all Damon’s toxic behaviour because he had an abusive father.
I get that his tragic backstory informs who he is now – he was deeply affected by what he suffered. But honestly, at some point a person needs to grow up and decide to take responsibility for who they are – either by choosing to break free of the past or investing in extensive psychotherapy.
But the Damon Salvatore character is just one example.
There’s also the ridiculously popular Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl. Ugh. SO PROBLEMATIC:
1) Attempts to rape a minor (Jenny, aged 14) at a party
2) Attempts to force himself on his (alleged) close friend, Serena
3) Much like Damon Salvatore, when faced with difficult emotions or situations, he self-sabotages and lashes out and blames everyone except himself
4) He is physically violent towards his love interest Blair (see this page for a detailed commentary on this)
5) He sabotages Blair’s relationship with someone else because he’s jealous
Seeing any commonalities here? Because I am.
I’m starting to see a pattern: “handsome” / conventionally attractive + obsessive+ misogynist + abusive = “romantic hero”.
Whoever came up with this formula needs to take some time out for reflection and reevaluation of their fundamental beliefs (and others affected by this idea need to do the same).
Travelling back in time to the early 1990s, you might come across a film called ‘Blink‘ starring Madeleine Stowe and Aidan Quinn.
Whilst a suspenseful (and erotic) thriller, the film is disturbing in an unintentional way – the romantic pairing of Detective John Hallstrom and the female protagonist Emma.
Hallstrom, portrayed by the attractive young Quinn, is a massive jerk and is very clearly abusive towards Emma.
1) He attempts to humiliate her when she first arrives at the police station to report a possible murder
2) He ridicules her blindness
3) He is controlling
4) He is physically violent (he shoves her around and smashes her hand into a mirror).
Going back further in time, to the 1980s, we have ‘Reckless‘. A film about teen angst and what feels like an attempt at making the Anti ‘Grease’. It is the edgier, broody alternative to Grease’s smiles, sparkles and sunshine. Its a film that I liked, and one I would find interesting to analyse.
However, the male protagonist, Johnny Rourke (also portrayed by Aidan Quinn) is a cause for concern. There are many indications that he has painful emotions that he needs to sort through. Yet, he ends up running away with the equally angsty female lead and we are supposed to cheer for them – even though everything points towards a disastrous future for them.
These are only a few examples, but one’s that have made me ponder.
Much like these characters, Richard Armitage’s Guy of Gisbourne is extremely problematic.
He’s got a lot of emotional issues to sort through, but more significantly:
1) He forces his courtship upon the uninterested Marian
2) He burns her home to the ground (on the Sheriff’s orders, and also because he’s angry at her for rejecting him)
3) He nearly forces her to marry him
4) He is obsessed with the idea of her, and builds her up as this epitome of virtue and goodness through whom he can be “saved”
5) He is repeatedly violent and apparently remorseless about this violence towards others (whether at his own initiative or the orders of the Sheriff)
6) He kills Marian, after her final rejection of him
7) He is revealed to be guilty of having sold off his own sister to a brute (for whatever reason)
…and yet Guy and Marian were more fervently “shipped” than Marian and Robin could ever hope to be. I can’t be sure what it was.
I mean, I know it helps that Gisbourne has Richard Armitage’s face, but what else?
The moments where Guy shows vulnerability, however briefly, before Marian?
The tragic backstory?
The series 3 redemption arc?
The tragic death?
I can’t be sure. But that is not, and ought to not, be enough to have him so adored by fans. Can we really overlook all the above, because he suffered in life?
We may perhaps understand why he is who he is, but we cannot condone it. Basically, he’s a lot like Damon Salvatore, but played by a more attractive man (in my opinion). I hate to admit this, but there it is. My most hated fictional character is very much like my favourite villain. Ugh. Why.
Is the appeal of these toxic characters related to basic human superficiality? Yes, you read that correctly. Humankind is ridiculously superficial, as shown by psychological research.
People judged to be more attractive are more easily forgiven – we’re more willing to overlook bad behaviour from people we deem attractive as compared to people we deem unattractive. We are more willing to attribute positive qualities (such as kindness or intelligence) to people we consider attractive, we’re more likely to display prosocial behaviour towards them, and they are likely to have an advantage in the workplace and in legal proceedings.
For more details on this ‘beauty bias’, read this.
One way to circumnavigate our conditioning might be the Freddy Krueger Test. This is a little test of my own invention. When tempted to make excuses for the fictional toxic male on your screen, ask yourself, “Would I be okay with this if he looked like Freddy Krueger?” Take a moment to visualise your favourite toxic character behaving in his usual way with Krueger’s appearance. It might help remove the rose-tinted spectacles of a beautiful face. Or it might not. Either way, worth a try, don’t you think?
While attractiveness is one explanation (and many people do find Ian Somerhalder, Ed Westwick, Aidan Quinn et al attractive), I don’t think its the complete answer. But then nor do I think I have a complete answer – just one other possible explanation.
My second suggestion is related to Karpman’s Drama Triangle. The Drama Triangle is a model for understanding problematic interactions between people, especially in situations of conflict. It hypothesises that a person takes on one of three roles (1) victim (helplessness) (2) persector (blaming, controlling, oppressive) or (3) rescuer (“let me save you!”). Could it be that we find toxic characters appealing because of our own ‘rescuer’ tendencies – our need to “save” other people, to “fix” people?
I have no definitive answers, but I’d be curious to know what readers think – post your comments!