Too often, assholes in fiction get praised and rewarded in spite of their terrible misdeeds – and this both mirrors and impacts how we respond to such behavior in real life.
Ten years ago, the CW launched Gossip Girl, the infamous teen soap which would become its defining show. A nauseating display of money, beauty and privilege, Gossip Girl chronicled the drama-filled lives of billionaire teenagers whose every move was reported by an omniscient gossip blogger. The show made waves for its extravagance, silliness, emphasis on fashion, “So Bad It’s Good” quality, and a bunch of despicable characters that the audience “loved to hate” (and vice versa).
And boy, were the characters in Gossip Girl despicable. None of its leads were sympathetic in the slightest, all of them betraying one another at a moment’s notice for petty reasons. But, while the general audience seems to agree on their collective assholeness (though Chuck Bass sadly has a more ambiguous status), there’s one who has, inexplicably, won over public favor: Blair Waldorf.
I’ve always been unsettled by the sheer unpleasantness of Blair’s character. Despite being presented as a deconstruction or deeper portraying of an Alpha Bitch, Blair is an Alpha Bitch played straight: cruel, spoiled, condescending, petty. Her disturbing behavior borders on full-blown sociopathy, as she seems to have little care in destroying the lives of those who displease her, even those who are supposedly her friends. The term destroy is no hyperbole: it’s the one she casually employs herself, and it fits. Blair Waldorf won’t just spread a few rumors or kick someone’s books from their hands. She’ll spread lies to get teachers fired (because they gave her a B), ruin a fellow student’s SAT scores (because she’s afraid of the competition), annihilate her former best friend’s chances at getting into college (because said best friend slept with her boyfriend a year ago, even though it was a drunken mistake and she feels horrible about it), or break apart perfectly happy couples (because she’s jealous).
She treats her “minions” (people who don’t even deserve the name of “friend”) with cold contempt, outing their embarrassing secrets to a gossip website. She frequently insults and belittles her maid, someone who’s supposed to be like a mother to her. Her disdain towards the people outside her privileged milieu is simply bewildering. When confronted about it by Vanessa Abrams (who’s from a lower social class) Blair confidently explains why she’s intrinsically better than her and those outside the 1%:
Vanessa: “What makes you think you’re so much better than me?”
Blair: “Do you really want to know? Everything. Generations of breeding and wealth had to come together to produce me. I have more in common with Marie-Antoinette than with you. And granted, you may be popular at some step Ivy safety school but the fact is the rabble is still rabble and they need a queen.”
Enough About Eve, 3×6.
But that’s nothing next to the cold, contemptuous words she adresses to Eva Coupeau, her ex-boyfriend’s newest partner (who’s from an even poorer background than Vanessa):
Eva: “Blair, the last thing I want to do is to hurt you.”
Blair: “Oh, you’re the one who’s going to end up being hurt, ma biche, and not by me. Chuck will soon realize that it doesn’t matter if the dress is couture if the girl is off the rack. And as with all things that don’t fit, you’ll be sent back to where you came from. Oh, and if I were you, I’d accessorize with some gloves. Not even a manicure can disguise those peasant hands.”
The Undergraduates, 4×3.
Yet few characters on the show have reached the level of popularity that Blair Waldorf has. She’s been defined as the series’ “break-out” character, more than just a Mean Girl, someone with style and guts. Her nastiness is easily excused away or balanced with other positive attributes: sure, she’s terrible, but she’s so loyal to her friends! She’s so brave! She’s hardworking, ambitious and will stop at nothing to get what she wants! She has an eating disorder! She’s a perfectionist! She struggles with body image and low self-esteem! She’s an intellectual and loves Audrey Hepburn movies and watching deep documentaries! Look at her amazing wardrobe! “At her core,” writes Kayla Cobb, “Blair Waldorf was always a good person. She just happened to be a good person with a shocking amount of money.”
Yes, good people who are good at their core do tend to consider public humiliations “better than sex.” I guess loving Audrey Hepburn and being a former bulimic somehow compensate for this? The positive reception Blair has received over the years is perplexing, especially considering she doesn’t mature one bit throughout the series. While her scheming becomes less frequent, she mostly keeps behaving like a snotty, spoiled socialite with an overblown ego and the habit of insulting perfect strangers – and acquaintances – to their faces.
A lot has been written in the character’s defence: by far the most thought-provoking piece is Vanessa Willoughby’s article for Bitchflicks. In Hate to Love Her: The Lasting Allure of Blair Waldorf, Willoughby argues that female characters like Blair don’t have to be pleasant to be compelling: her “unlikable-ness” is what makes her alive as a character. Willoughby thus joins the chorus of authors who have, in recent years, been praising the Unlikable Character, dismissing the criticisms of readers appalled by such characters’ antics. Characters, we are told, don’t have to be likable. After all, we’re not reading books to make friends, are we? And isn’t our dark side what makes us human? Do we wish for pure and bland protagonists, the kind that are, in the words of Cecily von Ziegesar, “too good”, who “don’t swear, who tell their mothers everything”?
They’re not wrong, of course. Deeply flawed protagonists can be mesmerizing to read about or watch on screen; cartoonish villains can be funny; and human beings certainly aren’t all light or darkness. It’s also certain that there’s a sexist double standard in literature and that unlikable female protagonists get much more shit for being too angry, bitter or agressive that their male counterparts.
That being said, I feel the “Unlikable Character Defence”, applied to figures the likes of Blair Waldorf, is missing a point or two. The problem isn’t as simple as readers getting all worked up because ohmygosh, that protagonist is imperfect, someone please call the Lit Police. There’s a strong difference between acknowledging a character has flaws, and worshipping said character while making feeble excuses for their behavior. And sure enough, that’s what the audience is expected to do: we’re expected to like and support the Antihero in all his bewitching complexity.
Not only are we given asshole characters, but the narrative strongly suggests we’re meant to root for them. We’re supposed to be happy for them when they succeed and sad when they’re heartbroken. We’re meant to see their rare decent moments as proofs of their innate goodness. Their emotional pain or torment after they’ve lost a loved one is supposed to show hidden depths. Their friends, parents, all the people they’ve wronged – they’ve forgiven them, they’ve vouched for the goodness inside. In the end, without having truly grown or made amends, they get everything they’ve ever wanted: money, security, love, a stable family.
The characters often presented as “flawed” or “antiheroic” are, frankly, assholes. They’re crude, they treat people like shit -but boy oh boy are they cool. They sport a sophisticated wardrobe, they have guts, they deliver all the witty punchlines. They’re selfish rapists or serial heartbreakers, borderline sociopaths whose unbelievable rudeness gets rebranded as raw honesty. But since they got all sad when their dad died, or helped that little orphan boy that one time, supposedly they have goodness inside and are merely flawed.
It’s striking how so-called Jerks with a Heart of Gold enjoy such massive popularity in our culture. Think of action movie heroes, Indiana Jones, Iron Man, Tyler Durden. Remember the lovable O’Connell in The Mummy (1999). One of his first actions when we meet him on screen? To force a kiss on protagonist Evelyn (whom he later throws into a river.) I love this movie to death and, I’ll admit, even O’Connell himself. He’s so charming, funny, he says what he thinks, he shoots mummies.
He’s also a rude jerk. And a sexual molester. What an asshole.
These heroes are supposed to be complex and flawed as opposed to nice and boring, I guess. But why is it that complexity, realism and above all, coolness are so strongly associated with verbal abuse and bad manners?
Because funnily enough, despite everything I’ve said about Blair Waldorf – including her habit to, oh, destroy people’s lives – I find that it’s what gets to me most: how rude she is. Who shouts at strangers to tell them their headbands are ugly?
Whether their authors like it or not, stories, and the narratives we build around those stories, have a moral impact. Praising asshole characters in light of their complex personalities – while excusing their nastiness on the account of cleverly hidden insecurities or a secret heart of gold – is not without consequences. This goes way beyond fiction.
We’ve all met someone like this. They’re mean. They’re acerbic. They’ll ask you inappropriate, intimate questions and call you conceited or prudish when you rightfully refuse to answer. They’ll make character statements about who you are despite having met you five minutes ago and explain to you how they think you should think and what they think you should do. They’ll routinely mock and belittle you in the name of sarcasm. They’re acquaintances, friends of friends, girlfriends. Husbands. Colleagues. They call themselves “honest” and “straightforward”; they claim to hate small talk and tact, which gets rebranded as hypocrisy.
And what do we say to excuse their faults? He’s a sweet man deep down, he’s just a little off. They have hidden depths, you just need to how where to look. Or my personal favorite: if you’re really in trouble, they’ll be here for you.
Well there you go. If you’re really in the deepest shit, they’ll gracefully lend you a hand. How generous! Although one may wonder if it makes much sense at all to maintain relations with someone who regularly takes jabs at our self-esteem, on the vague notion that they’ll allow us to crash their couch if we ever go bankrupt. Friends and loved ones are people we hang out with on the regular. Shouldn’t we hang out with people who make us feel good and happy every time we see them? Besides, won’t our nice friends (those who aren’t jerks) also be there for us in dire circumstances? What do we need the jerk for?
The idea of “hidden depths” is similarly flawed. If you have to dig in really deep to find some modicum of good in someone, it’s safe to say this person should be avoided. Kindness and empathy aren’t supposed to be buried. And they should not, for that matter, be limited to friends and loved ones. Another popular defence of jerks is that, ok, they’re jerks, but they’ll do anything for the ones they love. As if it were somehow admirable to support those who bring happiness to our lives. In a way, that’s another expression of selfishness: to be truly kind is to be able to think beyond oneself. Choosing to aid your family while deliberately disrespecting others means you only care for those who are extensions of yourself.
He has his flaws, but he’s got a good side to him. Being clever, ambitious or creative doesn’t compensate for being a jerk. There are clever, ambitious and creative people who aren’t jerks. Hang out with those instead.
And don’t get me started on the “they’re actually really insecure and vulnerable” argument. As it happens, bullies have very high levels of self-esteem. You know who’s really insecure and vulnerable though? Their victims.
The arguments used to justify the behavior of assholes in real life mirror the ones employed in defence of asshole characters. As in fiction, we play down the nastiness and seek for evidence of goodness, sometimes creating a new character out of whole cloth: thus a superficial girl who bullies her family circle can be described as a fundamentally good person, with her rare kind or merely decent moments being hailed as proof. But it’s what we do on the regular which defines us, not the exceptional moment here and there. Someone who’s regularly an asshole and acts sometimes nice isn’t actually really nice inside, they’re an asshole. If they were really nice, they’d act nice. We may wish for hidden depths, but I suspect that in life, what you see is mostly what you get. Those we call Jerks with Hearts of Gold are just Jerks with Hearts of Jerk.
The endless stream of excuses, however, ensures the bullies never have to change. And why would they? In fiction as in reality, meanness doesn’t just get excused and rewarded but framed as cool. And we live in an age where people have to be cool. It’s practically a moral imperative. We need shiny profiles and adventurous lives and stellar résumés. Average is the new dead. We have to stand out in one way or another. Acting like a jerk is a reliable way to get people’s attention and even respect: studies have shown that people react positively to those who violate norms or act over-confident, because it signals high self-esteem, power and competence. Being nice, on the other hand, has long been associated with weakness and insipidity.
This needs to change.
Idolizing pricks, no matter how fictional, teaches our young (everyone, really) that rudeness is not only acceptable but desirable. Conversely, it leads to the rejection of benevolence, patience and politeness because those aren’t exciting enough. That’s a shame. Tact isn’t a luxury or a sign of dishonesty: at its core, it means being careful of other people’s feelings. What’s wrong with that?
All in all, it makes little sense that good character traits (such as kindness and compassion) should be associated with weakness or blandness. One can be a perfectly gentle and passionate person while having no issues whatsoever telling their misogynist co-worker to piss off, thank you very much. Being a good person doesn’t mean getting trampled over. As a matter of fact, sucking it up in the face of insults or constantly doing others’ work for them has little to do with goodness and more to do with low self-esteem and fear of rejection.
“For those who want goodigoodiness, there are some Victorian good-girl religious novels that would suit them fine,” Margaret Atwood once told the New Yorker, and it feels unnecessarily disdainful, not to mention extreme. It shouldn’t be so hard to create strong, flawed, multifaceted characters who also happen to be polite and considerate of others’ feelings. Last time I checked, jerks didn’t hold the monopoly on guts or compelling personalities. Why should Good be automatically Boring? And what does it say about our society that we hold such views?
So, should we do away with Unlikable Characters? Of course not. Fiction should strive to represent all sorts of voices and personalities, to let us in on different modes of thinking. What matters is that the crude demeanor exhibited by such characters be adequately recognized and called out, either by friends, foes or strangers. Their odious misdeeds should not go unpunished or glossed over as if they were normal (oh you know how he is). And we certainly shouldn’t put them on pedestals and bask at the altar of their coolness. Seriously, we have to stop making Evil look Cool.
My perspective will probably annoy those who revere the likes of Dr House or Chuck Bass, and who will find the idea of lecturing these characters in-series abhorrent. But I believe in the power of fiction. I think we learn a great deal from fiction. And if assholes are normalized in fiction, it’s safe to say their behavior will seem more acceptable or excusable in reality as well. The audience has to understand in no uncertain terms that what they’re seeing is not okay or funny and that it’s not cool. No, making harsh character statements about people, loudly speaking over them to impose oh-so-subversive views or insulting their tastes to their faces does not make one refreshingly honest and detached, liberated from the evil constraints of hypocritical diplomacy. It just makes one an ignorant, lazy ass with poor social skills.
We already have a jerk epidemic on our hands. Let’s not make it worse.