I’m Stagger Lee: Representing the Villain

character and rep pic

Myles McNutt of the AV Club recently wrote an article with the dissertation-worthy title ‘When Fan Engagement Goes Wrong: The 100, Shameless, and the unsustainable dynamics of social TV’. In it, McNutt offers examples of producers, writers, actors and showrunners courting a certain fanbase (in this case, the LGBT community), only to have it backfire in response to later plot or character decisions. Simply put – don’t be surprised when the community you advertise to is unimpressed when you kill off the character representing said community.

I’m simplifying McNutt’s article, and the depth of his study – but the idea of the ‘representative’ stayed with me. I’m not going to touch on The 100 or Shameless­ because I’ve yet to see either and frankly they both look as appealing as a prolapsed anus. I’m going to talk about representation and its relationship to character.

Everyone wants better character representation, to an extent. More well-written women, gay characters, trans characters – hell, I’m sure even UKIP want more racist characters. My problem with the word representation though, is that it implies some sort of moral standard – these characters must stand for something. And there’s the issue there.

Perhaps it’s due to my preference for literature, but I don’t believe a character need be sympathetic , just developed. Some of the worst television I have ever seen has attempted to convince me that the terrible people in their ensemble are sympathetic – shows like Gossip Girl and Glee, where we are expected to empathise with people who come off worse than the Lannisters of Game of Thrones. But if we’ve come to expect that a character represent one community or the other, we want to see that character in the best possible light – which isn’t a character. It’s a role model, and unless your product is marketed to kids, I’d suggest avoiding that.

Game of Thrones has a somewhat dicey reputation when it comes to female characters, particularly when it comes to sex and exploitation. Most of these criticisms are pretty damn accurate, and I’m not going to argue with them. I am going to ramble a little, however, about Cersei. In the book series Game of Thrones is based on, Cersei is a shrieking cartoon character, a Lady Macbeth rip-off with none of the nuance or intelligence. In the more grounded world of the show, Cersei is a misanthrope drowning in her own ill-tempered schemes, anchored by Lena Headey’s brilliant performance. I won’t go so far as to say Cersei is completely unsympathetic (her monologues reveal a woman mired in depression and alcoholism), but she is a villain by anyone’s standard. Yet the show follows her – and her billing in the credits seems to climb higher every season. Game of Thrones is an ensemble show of course, but Cersei continually commands her own sub-plots independent of the rest of the cast – and like Blackadder before her, is repeatedly injured by her own overconfidence. She is remarkably well-written and acted without succumbing to any sort of demand for her to be shown in a better light. Cersei is Cersei, not a role model.

I’ve been sneaky here, in choosing a white woman as an example. Better written and more prominent roles are an issue for an actress like Lena Headey – not roles in general. When you look at roles for Asian actors across Western media for example, you hit a dilemma. Aziz Ansari has written at length about the offensively stereotypical roles offered to him. Even an Oscars ceremony desperate to illustrate how diverse they were managed some casual Asian stereotyping. When the roles for Asian actors are so limited, is there a responsibility that the few characters written as Asian be positive ones? I’m not entirely sure – there seems to be a conflation of negative stereotyping with villains or anti-heroes. Still referring to our example, I can see how this conflation stems (at least in part) from the whole ‘Yellow Peril’ phenomenon in cinema and literature – the inscrutable caricatures of Dr No and Fu Manchu, or ‘comedic’ roles as the bumbling foreigner. But I’d argue that given good writing, a flawed character offers more for representation than any role model. How many HBO shows have been made about angry white male anti-heroes? If there was a prestige show about an angry Asian female anti-hero, would it be as well received? This extends to comedy – Girls is frequently criticised for its ‘unsympathetic’ lead characters while It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia gets a pass – despite ‘unsympathetic’ arguably being the point of both shows.

It’s a dense issue, and this is me writing as an outside observer. A white middle-class guy (albeit a spectacularly mentally ill one) doesn’t have much place in the discussion of representation, but I’d like to see us widen the net from heroes to all characters – good bad and in-between. Representation as role model just narrows available roles, and I’d hate to lose characters along the lines of Cersei, Avon Barksdale, Aunty Entity, Two-Bob, Chiyo and Annie Wilkes. Anyone should be able to play the lead, but for god’s sake – anyone should be able to get the chance to play a fucking brilliant villain.