Art by Kris Harper
Everyone loves a good villain; it only takes turning on the TV to see how fascinated our society is with the bad guys. I’m constantly inundated with ads for new fictional depictions of Hannibal Lecter, The Joker, Lucifer, even Bonnie and Clyde. Why do we seem to love watching villains wreak havoc?
Maybe it’s because without villains, we can’t have heroes. And our love for villains pales in comparison to our love for heroes. Maltby, Giles, Barber and McCutcheon’s 2005 study in The British Journal of Health Psychology reports that our obsession with idolizing others can be rooted in helping us establish identity, determining “attitudinal and behavioral exemplars,” and guiding us through periods of burgeoning independence.
With such a prevalence of the good/bad dichotomy in our culture, it’s not a surprise that we tend to see things in black and white. Are you a hero, or are you a villain? We cast these parts in our everyday lives without even thinking, convincing ourselves that reality is filled with one-dimensional people who must be sorted and sentenced accordingly.
But reality is this: There are neither bad people nor good people, villains nor heroes. There are just people, who do both bad things and good things. Confining them to a category limits their humanity, and in turn takes away our ability to forgive them.
Take, for example, the situations of actress Jennifer Lawrence and author John Green. Both were once wildly popular, especially among the age range of the Pepperdine student body, but they’ve since fallen from grace.
What happened? Our misguided attempts to mold them into the hero/villain dichotomy.
In the case of Lawrence, her rise to fame happened seemingly overnight, and we adored her humorous irreverence toward Hollywood. She seemed to understand the life of the everyman, and at any given moment she wanted to be at home eating nachos just as much as the rest of us. She was the queen bee of the underdogs; a venerated hero of the Millennial generation at only 20 years old.
But remember — people aren’t our glorified heroes, and Jennifer Lawrence is no exception. She made off-color comments and starred in poorly received movies, and suddenly the masses began to realize that we just didn’t have it in us to accept that heroes make mistakes.
So if she couldn’t be our hero, she had to be our villain, and just as quickly as she had ascended, she fell. “If you listened closely Sunday night as Jennifer Lawrence accepted her third Golden Globe in four years, you could hear the faint sound of a queen being dethroned,” wrote Kevin O’Keefe in his Jan. 11, 2016 article “We Have Reached Peak Jennifer Lawrence” on Mic.com. The video of her chastising a reporter over his cellphone use went viral immediately, prompting waves of backlash that had been building for months, waiting for the final straw.
John Green’s fate has been similar; once beloved as a young adult author with a cult following for his novels, he’s now become synonymous with bad taste in literature, weepy teenage girls and pretentious prose. Again, a hero made a villain through popular rejection of the idea that even our idols are fallible. Ironically, Green said it best in his book “Paper Towns”: “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”
He’s right, in many ways. We are all only human, and our Kryptonite is simply the presence of that humanity. To believe that we are anything but a hot mess would be to strip us of that which makes us who we are — our flaws. No matter how “good” or how “bad,” none of us are immune to falling short. The lesson should be more about how we choose to respond to these mistakes, and less about whether or not they occur. Have mercy with each other in a society that tends to offer very little. After all, the world isn’t a comic book, so the best thing we can do is try to save each other.
Follow Sarah Elliott on Twitter: @sarahelliotts